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Archive for the ‘Langston Hughes’ Category

Back in the 1950s, writer Maya Angelou was singing and dancing her way across Europe and America to appear in clubs, movies, and plays.

African-American writer Maya Angelou died this week at age 86. Starting Friday, May 31, 2014, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York City, will showcase a collection of her papers, manuscripts and letters. Maya Angelou is no stranger to the Schomburg Center. In 1991, the Schomburg expanded to include a new addition and Ms. Angelou was a guest at the opening.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The Schomburg Center, Harlem, New York.

The 1991 expansion of the Schomburg Center was the Langston Hughes Building. The structure is named after African-American poet Langston Hughes, the leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Maya Angelou met him in California once when he came to hear her sing.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

Poets Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes hang out. Undated, prob. ca. 1960s.

The Langston Hughes Building contains an auditorium that seats 340 guests. Although impressive, the auditorium is of no interest to us here. It is the lobby that draws our attention.

The lobby is spacious, elegant, and flooded with natural light streaming through its many tall windows. The windows look out onto a garden but the real conversation piece is the floor. Embedded in the terrazzo tile  is a design honoring the poetry of Langston Hughes. “Rivers” was inspired by Hughes’ well-known poem, ” A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” This type of design is called a cosmogram, as it treats mystical themes of nature and the meaning of life. Blue rivers snake through rust-colored clay, evoking the Earth.

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The Langston Hughes Building lobby at the Schomburg Center, New York City

The design is pleasing, with its tribal symbols and poetic quotes. Looking closer even, we see that there is a fish shape in the middle. Inside the fish is a quote from the poem.

A quote from "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

A quote from “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Langston Hughes appears in the cosmogram in the Langston Hughes Building Lobby.

If we had superpowers and could see through the tile of the fish and underneath the floor, we would discover that there is something buried there. It is a vessel, made of metal, and, fittingly, we think later, shaped like a book. It is sealed. If we were to open it, which we won’t (and can’t), we would discover that it contains the cremated ashes of Langston Hughes himself. So the cosmogram, besides being beautiful, is useful. It is a tomb.

So, at the 1991 opening of the Langston Hughes Building, guests filled up the lobby and turned it into a dance floor. Someone cranked up the music and everyone boogied down. And this is how Maya Angelou and others ended up doing the proverbial dance on a friend’s grave.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month on Thursday night.  Mr. Hughes's ashes were buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the  writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them. Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991 CREDIT:  Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

In February 1991, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem observed the 89th birthday of the poet Langston Hughes and the beginning of Black History Month. Mr. Hughes’s ashes are buried beneath the floor of the auditorium, and in an African Custom of ancestral return, the writers Amiri Baraka and Maya Angelou danced atop them.
Published NYT Metro, Saturday, Feb. 22, 1991
CREDIT: Chester Higgins, Jr/The New York Times

 

For more on Maya Angelou, click here.

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MERRY-GO-ROUND by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

colored child at carnival:

 

Where is the Jim Crow section
On this merry-go-round,
Mister, cause I want to ride?
Down South where I come from
White and colored
Can’t sit side by side.

Down South on the train
There’s a Jim Crow car.
On the bus we’re put in the back–
But there ain’t no back
To a merry-go-round!

Where’s the horse
For a kid that’s black?

It wasn’t like young Langston Hughes to get into trouble. But, in 1914, when his seventh-grade teacher moved him and the other African-American students into a separate row in class, he got angry. So he put cards that read “JIM CROW ROW” on the black kids’ desks. He was soon expelled. But a protest rose up among the parents and Langston was eventually allowed to return to school. He had fought back and won a victory: separate seating in his school was no longer permitted.

Although Langston Hughes attended school with whites in Kansas, he wasn't allowed to play sports of join clubs. Signs throughout town read: "No Coloreds Allowed" and facilities for whites and blacks were separate. This anti-black caste system was known as Jim Crow Laws and operated mostly in the Southern United States between 1877 and the mid-1960s. It was used to keep blacks as second-class citizens.

Readers, you might also enjoy: Langston Hughes: When Sue Wears Red.

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Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an African-American poet, novelist, columnist, short story writer, and playwright. His exceptional literary talents were recognized early in life; he was elected class poet at his Lincoln, Illinois elementary school.

Langston Hughes scoffed at the “honor” of the position:

“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” 

Langston is best associated with the American literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s)  and was one of the pioneers of a new literary form, jazz poetry.

Langston wrote his first jazz poem when he was in high school in Cleveland: “When Sue Wears Red.” Here it is:

When Sue Wears Red

 

When Susanna Jones wears red

Her face is like an ancient cameo

Turned brown by the ages.

Come with a blast of trumpets, Jesus!

 

When Susanna Jones wears red

A queen from some time-dead Egyptian night

Walks once again.

Blow trumpets, Jesus!

 

And the beauty of Susanna Jones in red

Burns in my heart a love-fire sharp like pain.

Sweet silver trumpets, Jesus!

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