Submitted by Elaine Magliaro, Guest Blogger
Recently, we have had some interesting—and at times contentious—discussions about race, racism, and bigotry in this country on this blog. We’ve talked about Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, a rodeo clown impersonating President Obama, voter suppression and Jim Crow laws. These discussions brought to mind the poetry of a great American writer—Langston Hughes. I believe his poetry makes powerful statements about the Black experience in “the land of the free.”
Here is an excerpt from Hughes’s poem Will V-Day Be Me-Day Too?
So this is what I want to know:
When we see Victory’s glow,
Will you still let old Jim Crow
Hold me back?
When all those foreign folks who’ve waited—
Italians, Chinese, Danes—are liberated.
Will I still be ill-fated
Because I’m black?
Here in my own, my native land,
Will the Jim Crow laws still stand?
Will Dixie lynch me still
When I return?
Or will you comrades in arms
From the factories and the farms,
Have learned what this war
Was fought for us to learn?
When I take off my uniform,
Will I be safe from harm—
Or will you do me
As the Germans did the Jews?
When I’ve helped this world to save,
Shall I still be color’s slave?
Or will Victory change
Your antiquated views?
Click here to read the rest of the poem.
Here is a video of Langston Hughes reciting his poem I, Too:
And here is a video of poet Nikki Giovanni speaking about Langston Hughes and reading his poem Let America Be America Again:
Excerpt from Let American Be America Again:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!
Click here to read the rest of the poem.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
Langston Hughes reads his poem, Dreams
Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes (Poetry Reading)
Langston Hughes Biography (The Academy of American Poets)
Langston Hughes Biography (The Poetry Foundation)
I’d like to recommend a book of poetry that Hughes wrote for children entitled The Dream Keeper and Other Poems. The collection contains some of his most famous poems—including Dreams, Dream Variation, April Rain Song, Minstrel Man, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, My People, Mother to Son, Merry Go Round, and I, Too.
Merry Go Round
50 thoughts on “I, Too, Am America: The Poetry of Langston Hughes”
Thank you for the comments on the poem. I wrote it to try and communicate what it feels like to almost lose your grip in an unguarded moment. Also the irony and absurdity of my own situation had a lot to do with it.
As for the Agent Orange business, I once spent over thirteen months surrounded by a bomb-cratered, defoliated landscape called Solid Anchor. I almost went insane there. Perhaps I did. I don’t suppose I’ll really ever know for sure. One night during an especially heavy monsoon rain, some of us enlisted men got completely wiped out guzzling beer. Someone bet me 5 dollars that I wouldn’t take off all my clothes, put on my steel helmet, march across the compound and report for duty to the officer of the watch in the communications center where I normally worked during the day. I won the 5 bucks.
Good thing for me that no other Americans on the base spoke Vietnamese. I think that had something to do with why people generally stayed away from me and let me pretty much do my job as interpreter/translator as circumstances required. I could always identify with that scene in the movie Cat Ballou where someone tells the drunken Lee Marvin character how bloodshot his eyes look and he replies: “You ought to see ’em from my side.” I think that perhaps the compulsion to compose verse comes upon me whenever I start seeing the bloody insides of my own eyes again. Or something like that.
For My People (Favorite Poem Project)
I came on to this blog just now to write something else, but your poem was so jarring, especially the line, “I experienced a disorienting sense of scale compression.”
I saw on the news that the US government started last year to clean up some of the Agent Orange contamination, but it sounds like there is a lot more that could be done. I hope they do more. We can’t unlock the past and change it, but if there are ways to ameliorate the effects of past acts, we should try! Then we could be–even if just a tiny bit–cleaner and freer, and have a clearer conscience.
Thanks for posting the poem,
Here are two political haiku I found at The Nation website:
Chaunce Windle of South Bend, Indiana
See dust thick on text books.
Evolution was a fad.
Science dead? You betcha.
Laura Welch of Syracuse, NY
And that pesky Bill of Rights
Who needs ’em? Wink. Wink.
The U.S. government filled us full of propaganda slogans like “Better Dead than Red.” Then some of us discovered what that damnable drivel really meant:
Better Maimed than Marxist
(an experiment in so-called “free verse”)
At our U.S. Navy advanced tactical support base,
on the banks of a muddy brown river,
not far from the southernmost tip of South Vietnam,
I injured my right middle finger
in a pickup volleyball game one Sunday afternoon.
Having no X-ray equipment at our little infirmary,
I had to take a helicopter ride north
to a larger Army base possessing
better medical equipment and facilities
to see if I had broken any bones in my hand.
Walking down a hospital corridor, I passed
a room full of Vietnamese patients
who had no arms or legs.
I experienced a disorienting sense of scale compression,
unexpectedly witness to already small lives made minuscule in a moment,
like seeing living dollar bills cut down to the size of postage stamps,
or sentient silver quarters suddenly shrunk to copper pennies.
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2012
Sometimes I just get so angry ….
In Case of Fire
Poetry needs rules
Like a picture needs a frame
Learn before breaking
I read once that poetry thrives on two principles: repetition and anticipation, the first of which sets up the second. My favorite example of this truth comes from one of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, I think either Cat’s Cradle or Breakfast of Champions, where he writes:
Roses are red
And ready for plucking
And ready for high school
I thought about that one for awhile and thought about trying my hand at achieving something of the same effect. I came up with:
My wife had her hair done the other day
She looked so cute.
Then she glanced at me in a meaningful way:
Expectant, though mute.
Understanding, I rushed to the kitchen
For my bottle of Vitamin-E tablets.
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller”
Then I got to thinking about those Mad Magazine anthologies that my friends and I used to love so much in high school. That led to:
One Day at the Restaurant
(in honor of Mad Magazine cartoonist Don Martin)
“Sandwich and a salad, sister.
Fast — like in a race.”
“Sure, and how’d you like them, mister?
In your lap or face?”
“Water, waiter, while I wonder
What I want to eat.”
“Sure, just see the menu under
‘Food: some kind of meat.’”
“Hey! I’ve got a big fly floating
In my glass of wine.”
“So? No need to sit there, gloating;
I’ve got two in mine.”
Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2010
And so it goes …
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