February 1 always marks the start of US Black History Month, as well as the birthday of one of the greatest poets this country gave the wider world, James Langston Mercer Hughes (1902-1967). I think I've alternated in the past by celebrating one or the other, but today, in tribute to the month and to Hughes, here are a few of his poems, all taken from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad and David E. Roessel, Editors (New York: Vintage, 1995).
The first is a poem drawn from Hughes's time on the sea; Sekondi, part of Sekondi-Takoradi, is a port city in Ghana. Note the ironic play on fog and the swift punchline-like turn at the poem's end.
Singing black boatmen
An August morning
In the thick white fog at Sekondi
Coming out to take cargo
From anchored alien ships,
You do not know the fog
We strange so-civilized ones
Sail in always.
Here are three queer poems drawn from Hughes's collections up to 1936. I reread all the poems in these volumes in preparation for my story "Blues," which involves a (fictional?) meeting between Hughes and the Mexican poet Xavier Villaurrutia, who had already translated some of Hughes' work into Spanish.
In his first three or so collections, Hughes has, among a wide array of poems in which a male voice addresses a female beloved; a female voice addresses or speaks of a male beloved; and gender-ambiguous poems, many invoke nocturnal imagery (because we all know what goes on in the dark).
Lovely, dark, and lonely one,
Bare your bosom to the sun.
Do not be afraid of light,
You who are a child of night.
Open wide your arms to life,
Whirl in the wind of pain and strife,
Face the wall with the dark, closed gate,
Beat with bare, brown fists--
HARLEM NIGHT SONG
Let us sing the night together,
I love you.
The Harlem roof-tops
Moon is shining.
Night sky is blue.
Stars are great drops
Of golden dew.
Down the street
a band is playing
I love you.
Come, let us roam the night together
Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Of our mingled breath,
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked
Lastly, Hughes was a poet who did not shy away from political and social commentary, but he had a gift for figuring out how to express it without it (for the most part) sounding like propaganda. Part of his success hinges on his use of humor, part on his careful use of rhyme, rhetoric and rhythm, part on his inclusion of vernacular and the viewpoint of the subaltern, and part on his skillful deployment of irony. The parodic tone and collage quality here point in the direction of post-modernism.
"Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria" appeared in 1931 in New Masses magazine, and later in Hughes's aubiography, The Big Sea, and is considered a masterpiece of Popular Front aesthetics. I checked the Inflation Calculator, and $10,000/year in 1931 would equal $155,747.37/year in 2014 dollars. That would come to about $12,978/month, which, it turns out, was about the price of the lowest end rentals in the Waldorf Towers in 2011 (I can only imagine that it has risen by several thousand dollars as the price of high-end real estate keeps rising.) To put it another way, Hughes was prescient, and not for the first time!
Excerpt from ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE WALDORF ASTORIA
All you families put out in the street
Apartments in the Towers are only $10,000 a year. (Three
rooms and two baths.) Move in there until times get good,
and you can do better. $10,000 are about the same
to you, aren't they?
Who cares about money with a wife and kids homeless, and no-
body in the family working? Wouldn't a duplex high above
the street be grand, with a view of the richest city in the
world at your nose?
"A lease, if you prefer, or an arrangement terminable at will."
All poems Copyright © Estate of Langston Hughes, 1995, 2015. All rights reserved.