Langston Hughes Month: “Songs”

“November Under Light.” Sam Haskins, November Girl (1966).

I sat there singing her
Songs in the dark.

She said,
“I do not understand
The words.”

I said,
“There are
No words.”

— Langston Hughes, “Songs.”

A beautiful and true sentiment.

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4 Responses to “Langston Hughes Month: “Songs””

  1. P. Says:

    So lemme get this straight–a series of Langston Hughes poems illustrated just about exclusively with pictures of white girls?

    • E. Says:

      You make a good point, Paul. I hadn’t noticed. I wasn’t really paying attention to the pictures I chose, I was focused on the words and I just went with whatever picture I found first on my hard-drive that fit what I considered the theme of the poem. I hadn’t considered it a color issue. But, that said, I must wonder, if it had been exclusively images of black women or men, would that have then opened the illustrations to accusations of pandering? I have no agenda with the pictures I selected. I wanted to know a wider selection of the work of Langston Hughes than what I had seen in simple anthologies. I didn’t think I had chosen any particularly racially charged poems, but I know it is a major facet of his import in literature. I guess it is a mark of the thought-provocation of his work that race issues surround even his poems that have nothing to do with that topic, so I consider it a growing experience. Thank you.

  2. P. Says:

    It’s a tough one–I don’t think there is any way that one can seperate the politics of race from Hughes’s work. at the same time, I don’t think you can reduce Hughes’s work to the politics of race–too much of what he writes deals in questions that are fundamental to the universal human condition.

    While it would be nice to take a position that there’s a sense in which the poem is beyond race or other types of category, I think we can agree that that sort of idealism obscures too many peoples’ lived realities.

    All that being said, I do like what you’re doing here as a concept. You’ve chosen some beautiful LH selections and, the colour issue aside, the pictures are provoking and provocative. I only decided to call you out on it because of the overwhelming whiteness of the pictures you chose–take it for what it’s worth.

    • E. Says:

      I love what you are saying here. You totally summed up what I started thinking about after reading your initial comment. I wondered, well, geez, why is that?? Have I only pictures of white girls?? I flipped back through and indeed found a preponderance of “caucasian” and asian women. What?! What gives? I wondered.

      First I thought, having grown up in the “melting pot” of the 80’s Second Wave of multicultural theory influencing educational policy in the Bay Area of California, was I spoilt or predisposed to discard an initial instinct to deliberately select thematically-charged poems or essays of Hughes’ and purposely went the other way to avoid the debates? I was told again and again that color and heritage did not matter because we were all equal. And yet, when probed, that falls apart to my mind because it simply Does Not adequately address the inequities of history, and so naturally the “Third Wave” rolled in, which rightly and admirably attempts to hark back respectfully to heritage while acknowledging the difficulty (informed by history) of negotiating a peace-seeking, accepting, well-informed view of today’s racial landscape.

      I agree so wholeheartedly that much of Hughes’ work both transcended race while still working within its framework, as it could only do given his unique position in time and place. What I remember from a wonderful unit on the Harlem Renaissance that I took while in college was my interest in the sort of accidental debate between George Washington Carver and W.E.B. DuBois over what must come next for a true racial understanding in America (which of course influenced the writers of the Harlem Renaissance). Being, as I said, Second Wave in the 1980’s in California, Carver was held up to me, those 70 years later, as a forward-thinking hero of equality. But what I learned some fifteen years later was how his peers, such as DuBois, reviled what they viewed as a certain stooping on Carver’s part, an over-compromise that neglected the very grave injustices of the past. I remember thinking that this was justified, but being surprised at DuBois’ support of African-American “repatriatism” to Liberia — mainly because my own family has only been “American” for around one hundred or so years, as opposed to the deep roots of so many fellow citizens who are still actually opressed as an other. As an example, my incredibly isolated grandmother, who grew up in the woods of North Idaho, visited us in San Jose when I was five and asked, “Are there any black kids in your class?” I was shocked and thought this was ridiculous. “No!” I said, amazed that she would ask such a weird question. My mother corrected me and pointed out that several of my friends were so-called black. I had no damned clue what “black” could have meant and never thought of Christina, Laura, and Alexis (several of my dearest friends) that way. But what a unique experience that was, I came to realize as I aged and we moved about the state.

      One of the poems I’ve bookmarked of Hughes’ and planned to use as my last entry on him was “Dinner Guest: Me.” What struck me most strongly when I read it was how it reminded me was the chapter of Ellison’s Invisible Man when the narrator deals with the coy homosexual son of the man he thinks may give him a job in The City, and the young man attempts to compare himself to the narrator, and all the dreadful struggle against prejudice with which we have fought alongside him throughout the novel. That guy seems so smug and cheap and insincere, and it is so perfectly evoked in Hughes’ description of his awkward dinner with an apologist.

      Oh. That twat, and yet? The White Guilt. Is that what subconsciously informed my picture choices, as if to select an image depicting a person as black as the author would be some kind of admission of race-awareness, like so-called color blindness is better? I don’t know! But what I do know is that your comment has given me loads to think about and I thank you again, very heartily. It has been excellent food for thought and thanks again!

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