Justice isn't always natural, except in retrospect
I don't know nearly enough about Langston Hughes.Oh, I've read a couple of poems - if you haven't experienced "A Dream Deferred" then you probably weren't in the right high school English classes. I'm generally familiar with the outlines of his life. And I've written several stories about his Lawrence childhood, and his adult reflections on it.But I've never sat down and really invested myself in Hughes' work. As somebody who loves to read, and as somebody who loves Lawrence, this feels like a bit of a shortcoming.Even more so, after a recent story I wrote about a new book documenting the places Hughes lived, studied and played during his Lawrence years. Not long after the story appeared, I found the following criticism online."Langston Hughes was a freakin' COMMUNIST!!!!" the critic wrote. "Not that it really makes a difference in a poetic sense. The man had obvious talent... "...But, why does the left (INCLUDING THIS CRAPPY RAG) constantly glorify a piece of crap like Hughes??" From a purely literary standpoint, I'm just not familiar enough with Hughes' work to present a defense. But Hughes' importance - in Lawrence, at least - goes beyond his ability to set pen to paper. He's important, you see, because his continuing fame forces us to confront pieces of Lawrence history that we would probably rather forget. In 1953, for example, he was called to testify before Sen. Joe McCarthy's committee that was on the hunt for communists, asked to defend poems that seemed to call for revolution.Hughes denied formal Communist Party membership, but admitted to being influenced by the "isms" of the left. And he recounted an incident from his Lawrence days.He said:"One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the movies in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived, and there was one motion picture theater, and I went every afternoon. It was a nickelodeon, and I had a nickel to go. One afternoon I put my nickel down and the woman pushed it back and she pointed to a sign. I was about 7 years old. _"The woman pushed my nickel back and pointed to a sign beside the box office, and the sign said something, in effect, ''Colored not admitted.'' It was my first revelation of the division between the American citizens. My playmates who were white and lived next door to me could go to that motion picture and I could not. I could never see a film in Lawrence again, and I lived there until I was 12 years old."_Granted, there probably weren't many places in America in the early 1900s where it was easy and comfortable to be black.But in Lawrence, we're awfully good and awfully prolific at congratulating ourselves for our "Free State" past, good at proclaiming our place in the history in the long fight for racial justice in America. We've even started to make an industry out of it. There's nothing wrong with that; the progress that was made -- and our city's contributions to it -- needs recognition, needs remembrance.Honesty, though, compels us to recognize that justice is not always easy. It isn't always even the natural thing for us, except in retrospect.That's why Hughes is important, even now. He helps us to remember.