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.

Comments

chikidey 17 years, 6 months ago

Harry's still around and still a great professor.

quinn 17 years, 6 months ago

Harry Shaffer, the great leftist econ prof at KU, was part of the team that integrated the Lawrence Public Pool, I think in the '50s...

Anyone know if Harry's still around? He and Roy Laird were quite the Crossfire team.

sleepy_pete 17 years, 6 months ago

I've heard a story about Langston Hughes coming to KU in the 50s to read and being booed off the stage because he was a "communist." I've never found any hard evidence (of course I've never looked extensively), so let's just say it's apocryphal. But it wouldn't surprise me.

As far as race, most people don't know about exoduster towns either. These were towns created for freed slaves from the south so that they could have their own communities (or, if you're cynical, so that they wouldn't be a part of established communities). Kansas isn't as innocent when it comes to racism as it would like to think, as you've pointed out.

Nice post, Joel.

lazz 17 years, 6 months ago

I've read and heard many different versions about movie-theatre segregation in Lawrence in the past century; one of the persistent (and perhaps true) rumors was that Wilt Chamberlain had to sit in the balcony of the Varsity ... With absolutely no disrespect to Mr. Hughes, who is a towering figure, it's not always best to rely on personal memories -- especially when they were formed as a small child -- to know exactly what happened. I'd be very interested to read a post, or a JW story, with info from a historian such as Dr. Jansen that could summarize the history of movie theatres in Lawrence: How many there were at various times, did they maintain the same discriminatory policies, how and when those changed ... I think movie theatres, as large public gathering sites that are privately owned, offer a great microenvironment to better understand the larger policies and attitudes. Joel, feel like tackling a Sunday takeout on this sometime?

Joel 17 years, 6 months ago

Lazz:

I wrote about Hughes' Senate testimony in May 2003. The following two paragraphs are from that story.

"Lawrence experts familiar with Hughes' life said they had not heard the movie theater story before.

"'I guess I'm not surprised,' said Lawrence historian Steve Jansen. 'I know there were 'colored' sections in the Bowersock Opera House. In general, segregation was practiced in Lawrence well into the 1960s.'"

Hope that helps.

MAMAT 17 years, 6 months ago

Many celebrated Black folks who lived in Lawrence (during their youth) swore they'd not return, the memories of racism still were so strong. I find it interesting to see/note that many white (often self titled liberals) folks don't want to admit that racism was, and still is to a large degree, alive and well & Living In Lawrence. It's not "out there" like it was in Jim Crow era days. (People don't feel comfortable admitting their secret prejudices, even to themselves). We see more bi-racial couples on the streets of Lawrence then in the whole rest of the state! And (thank Christ) it may be waning as ignorance and fear die off, to be replaced by tolerance and appreciation for diversity. But if you don't believe it's still harder to be Black then it is White (in this great land), try the "Black Like Me" trick and change your appearance for about 6 months! As Chris Rock put it in his comedy routine - hell, no white man wants to be me, and I am fucking RICH!

MAMAT 17 years, 6 months ago

For information on the Hughes and racism in Lawrence topic:

http://www.langstonhughes.8m.com/ http://ljworld.com/section/arts/story/189258 (Joel's article) http://www.kshs.org/publicat/history/1980spring_scott.htm http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/life.htm

Overall, it sounds like he had a lonely time as a youth, parentally neglected, and being Black (in that day and age) just added more fuel to his feelings of isolation and angst! He'd probably have had a "bad time" living anywhere in America - given the times and his personal circumstances!

Rob Gillaspie 17 years, 6 months ago

Oh, man, I was just talking about that comment the other day... Wasn't it on the Reader Reaction forum? The people who post on that board have their heads planted firmly up their ASSES. It's an endless source of hilarity to me... I wonder if the author of that post realizes just how many important people were not only associated, but were actual MEMBERS of the communist party back in those days? It makes me shudder to think that red-baiting is once again back in vogue...

MyName 17 years, 6 months ago

Yeah that stuff about segregation kind of bothers me too. What with the Brown v. Board anniversary, people here spent alot of the year talking about how much better we are as a state with regards to race and segregation. But when you really look at it, Kansas (and Topeka Public Schools) was just at the top of a list of schools that had to be sued before they let black children in. We had a lot of the same laws that the southern states had we just didn't always enforce them. Kansas may not have been as restrictive as Alabama, but if we were as good as we needed to be about race, we wouldn't have been on the list of Brown schools at all.

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