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On Today’s Menu:
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** Share some birthday cake for a celebrated Jazz Age poet.
** Linger to join a trip to Budapest, circa 2017.
** Savor a last ½ cup on another trip——this time around the world, circa 1937!
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…I pick up my life
And take it on the train
To Los Angeles, Bakersfield,
Seattle, Oakland, Salt Lake,
Anyplace that is
North and West—
And not South.
I am fed up
With Jim Crow laws,
People who are cruel
Who lynch and run,
Who are scared of me
And me of them…
– from One-Way Ticket
by Langston Hughes
Slice of Cake:
It’s 1926 and Langston Hughes is working
at a New York City hotel as
One night he recognizes one of the diners—
It’s the poet Vachel Lindsay.
Hughes decides to sneak him some of his own poems,
So he slips a few papers under Lindsay’s dinner plate.
About half-way through the evening, Lindsay finds the poems.
He picks up one and reads:
…Far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
Vachel Lindsay shakes his head and asks: Who wrote this?
Langston Hughes steps forward and says: I did.
Next day, Lindsay starts introducing Hughes to publishers.
And that is how Langston Hughes, at age 24,
came to publish his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues. 1
Later in life, Hughes was asked what his poems were about.
Workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters…
People up today and down tomorrow,
working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but
determined not to be wholly beaten,
buying furniture on the installment plan,
filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to
get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit
before the Fourth of July. 2
Langston Hughes was born in Missouri, but grew up mostly in Kansas with his grandmother.
It was in Lincoln, Kansas, in the 8th grade, that Hughes was chosen by his otherwise all-white classmates to be class poet. 3
His grandmother died when he was 13. Hughes then lived with family friends for a few months before rejoining his mother and step-father.4,5
The family moved several times throughout the Midwest and eventually to Cleveland, where Hughes attended high school.
after this itinerant childhood—moving at least eight times that I could count—
Langston Hughes moved by himself to New York City
to attend Columbia University.
It didn’t take him long to discover and fall in love with the Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem—
a place he would keep returning to for the rest of his life.
The thrill of those towers of Manhattan
with their million golden eyes,
growing slowly taller and taller above the green water…
Then Brooklyn Bridge, gigantic in the dusk!
… All this made me feel it was better to come to New York
than to any other city in the world.9
Arriving in Harlem after a stay in Mexico with his father,
Hughes described his feelings as he stepped out of the 135th Street subway stop:
I stood there, dropped my bags,
took a deep breath and
felt happy again.3
Harlem was, at last, a place of belonging for Langston Hughes.
And it was here that Hughes became a leader in the astounding concentration of American culture—
of music, fashion, literature, intellectual thought, art, and theater—that we now call the Harlem Renaissance.
Happy 118th Birthday
** Langston Hughes **
– born on February 1, 1902
in Joplin, Missouri
…Then I stood out on a prairie
And as far as I could see
Wasn’t nobody on that prairie
Looked like me.
It was that lonely day, folks,
I walked all by myself:
My friends were right there with me
But was just as if they’d left.
– from Crossing
by Langston Hughes
Been thinking this week about who is able to feel at home, and where.
Recently my nephew Justus was talking to a group of friends.
He told them that this past summer, he and his teenage son had stayed for
a couple of weeks in Irvington, New Jersey.
His friend Noah—who lives near Irvington—said ‘Youch!’
I grew up in the Fillmore District! Irvington felt suuuuper comfortable.
Day 1, I walked up to the bodega and was
greeted with silence by the group of dudes standing on the corner.
I was like, ‘whassup, y’all’
and one guy asked me what I was doing there.
Told him I was staying at a friend’s
while my son did a freestyle hiphop
workshop in the east village.
He told me I ‘stood out’ in the neighborhood.
I said, ‘Look at me…
I stand out in every neighborhood.’
Tension dissipated with laughter and a dap.
By the next day, every dude on the block
said wassup when they saw me.
It was chill af.
In his memoir I Wonder As I Wander, Langston Hughes describes living and working in Russia for several months during the 1930s. He was there with a group of Americans to create a movie.
Hughes wrote this while in Turkmenistan:
The film-worker’s institute was where practice films were made under Russian directors.
Illiterate actors from the nomad tribes of the desert were being taught to read and write at the same time as they were being taught to act, to operate movie cameras, and to develop films…
This interested me enormously…
Here were colored people being taught by white men, Russians, about the making of films from the ground up—the building of sets, the preparation of scenarios, acting, camera work—
and I could not help but think
how impregnable Hollywood had been to Negroes, and how all over America the union of motion picture operators did not permit Negroes to operate projection machines… Negro-owned establishments had to employ white projectionists.
When I told this to Koestler…I was trying to make him understand why I observed the changes in Soviet Asia with Negro eyes.
To Koestler, Turkmenistan was simply a primitive land moving into twentieth-century civilization.
To me it was a colored land moving into orbits hitherto reserved for whites.
– from I Wonder As I Wander
by Langston Hughes
The Soviet Union was newly in power, and though Hughes saw no shortage of problems and injustices, he also talks of an “achievement of the disappearance of the color line throughout Soviet Asia.”
Something no one could claim about America—then or now.
I suppose how anything is seen depends on whose eyes look at it. 6
It’s now been 80 years since Langston Hughes’ experiences with the beginning of the Soviet Union—and 25 years since its dissolution.
In March 2017, I spent a week in Budapest, and was surprised to still see and feel lingering effects of the Soviet influence, as well as heart-rendering memorials from Hungary’s past.
Here are some excerpts
from my travel diary in Budapest:
Tuesday 13 March 2017
Last night B and I saw a 6-piece stringed orchestra playing in St Stephen’s Basilica. Music of Vivaldi, Saint-Saens, Bach, and, of course, Hungarian Franz Liszt.
The music was beautiful, but the cold from the stone pews was slowly seeping into my bones. By the time the soprano was singing the final piece, Alleluia from Exsultate, I was too ready for it to be over to enjoy even Mozart.
Prof B: Why don’t they turn up the heat?
me: Welcome to the Middle Ages.
(The church is actually from 1905.)
Wednesday 15 March
There’s a lot of fake old here. Like the Fisherman’s Bastion, built to look medieval, but actually from the 1850s.
I think it’s because so much of the city was destroyed in various wars and rebellions, and in re-building they wanted to recapture some of their history.
As we walked around, B and I started noticing that people were wearing rosettes of green, white, and red. We asked a store clerk about it, she shrugged at first but then looked it up for us on her phone. Turns out March 15 is the anniversary of the start of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848.
Green, white, and red are the colors of the Hungarian flag.
later on Wednesday
I’ve never spent time in a former Soviet bloc country before…
Today we visited the Grand Parliament where there was a well-done and very moving exhibit about a tragedy in 1956: It seems that the crowd had gathered in the square by mistake, and shots were fired by mistake from somewhere—from the crowd or out a window and the tanks returned fire. No one since has been able to sort out exactly what happened. The government so thoroughly hushed it up afterwards that even the names of the victims are still largely unknown.
As we walked back to the hotel everything seemed eerily quiet. The few people we did see were wearing the green, white, and red rosettes. Then we came to streets that were blocked off—and found the crowds. A big anti-government rally was just getting started. Bruce went to stay and see a bit of it; I walked on to the hotel. Back in our room, I opened a window and could hear amplified voices and the sounds of the crowd.
Thursday 18 March
How nice that it’s been mild and no rain this whole week.
A week is a good visit—not long enough to see everything obviously, but enough to feel we’ve seen enough and have a feel for a place.
Budapest is a beautiful city with a sometimes grand, sometimes tragic past.
Friday 17 March
Our train leaves for Vienna in an hour.
I know I will be thinking about Budapest for a long time—
A place of heroes and oppressors
and a long history of pain for ordinary people.
“Half Cup More”
One of the most enjoyable books I read this past year is a memoir of around-the world-travels in the middle of the 1930s…
Here are some excerpts from
I Wonder As I Wander
a travel memoir by Langston Hughes.
from the opening chapter:
For ten years I had been a writer of sorts,
but a writer who wrote mostly because, when I felt bad,
writing kept me from feeling worse;
it put my inner emotions into exterior form, and gave me
an outlet for words that never came in conversation.
I never lived in Greenwich Village…
Its bohemian life…was outside my orbit.
Although once I live for a year in Montmartre in Paris,
I lived there as a worker, not an artist.
So the nearest I’ve come to la vie de boheme was
my winter in Mexico
when my friends were almost all writers and artists.
in Cap-Haïtien, Cuba:
This little hotel
had only one other guest,
a Santo Dominican revolutionary in exile…
One of the first things he told me was
“No hay nada a divertirse aqui.”
There’s nothing to do here. “Nothing but drink.”
I gathered from him that Cap-Haïtien was a dull place indeed,
and the hotel in which we lived even duller.
His description of the hotel was a single dirty word,
more polite in French than in Spanish, and
not at all acceptable in English.
in Hampton, South Carolina:
We avoided segregation by not having to seek
food or sleeping accommodations
in public places along the Southern highways.
But we did have to get gas and sometimes
use the gas-station rest rooms…
Mrs Bethune would usually say,
“Young man, do I have to avail myself of that
shanty rest room away around there in the bushes?”
If there were no whites about, the embarrassed attendant
might say, “Ma’am, just use the one marked LADIES.”
But if the station were busy, he would indicate that
the COLORED toilet was meant for her.
Then Mrs Bethune would say gently,
“Aren’t you ashamed, young man?”
The young man would usually turn red and answer,
“Yes, ma’am, I really am.”
in Spain during the Spanish Civil War:
Usually at the Alianza
no one bothered to get out of bed during a late bombardment.
But this bombardment was so intense that
almost everyone gathered for company in the recreation hall.
As usual someone began to play records to
drown out the sound of the explosions.
The amplifier was turned up very loud…
That night of the big bombardment,
the Jimmie Lunceford record we kept going continuously
until almost dawn was “Organ Grinder’s Swing.” 7
in the Soviet Union:
Shortly after I moved into the New Moscow Hotel,
I met there Marie Seaton from London. She…had with her
a paper-bound copy of D. H. Lawrence’s
short stories The Lovely Lady, which she lent me.
I had never read anything of Lawrence’s before,
and was particularly taken with the title story,
and with ‘The Rocking Horse Winner.’
…After I had read the Lawrence stories,
I sat down to write an article on Tashkent when
instead, I began to write a short story.
I had been saying to myself all day,
“If D. H. Lawrence can write such
psychologically powerful accounts of folks in England,
that send shivers up and down my spine,
maybe I could write stories like his about
folks in America.”
The trip to the Kolhoz Aitakov
in a battered and steaming old car was
hot, dusty, and long, for we left town in a dust storm…
Yet, when we reached the cotton farm…it was as
I’d always imagined an oasis should be,
all green and leafy,
I was suddenly happy,
gazing at a whole new world of fascinating people.
Perhaps this had been the Garden of Eden.
in Carmel, California:
At Carmel, I worked ten or twelve hours a day
and turned out at least one story or completed article
every week, sometimes more…
It was a godsend to me that I could live rent-free
…I was able, unworried and unhurried,
to stay quietly in one place and
devote myself to writing.
I highly recommend the book I Wonder As I Wander by Langston Hughes.
Especially if you’re planning a trip! It makes an excellent traveling companion, no matter where you going.
Here is one more excerpt for you—
where Hughes, in Spain during the Spanish Civil War,
describes an artist who knew exactly
where she belonged…
The flamenco singer, La Niña de los Peines,
refused to leave the city she loved.
…La Niña was still singing
in Madrid under fire…
Madrid was the war front.
My first Sunday in Madrid…I found the theater…
the place was already crowded when I arrived
to discover on a bare stage a group of Gypsy guitarists and
dancers clapping hands and tapping heels as I entered.
In their midst on a wooden kitchen chair sat a middle-aged woman…
There was nothing visually colorful or
picturesque about them…on the barren stage
with no special lighting and no curtains, and without a spotlight…
My seat neighbor said,
“Yes. The old one in the middle on the chair,
that’s her.” La Niña de los Peines, Pastora Pavón.
She was clapping her hands with the others,
but someone else was singing when I sat down.
Shortly, without any introduction or fanfare,
she herself sat up very straight in her chair and,
after a series of quavering little cries,
began to half-speak, half-sing a solea—
to moan, intone and cry in a Gypsy Spanish I did not understand,
a kind of raw heartbreak rising to a crescendo
that made half the audience cry aloud with her after the
rise and fall of each phrase.
The guitars played behind her,
but you forgot the guitars
and heard only her voice rising hard and harsh,
wild, lonely and bitter-sweet
from the bare stage of the theater with the
unshaded house lights on full.
This plain old woman could make the hair rise on your head,
could do to your insides what the moan of an air-raid siren did,
could rip your soul-case with her voice.
I went to hear La Niña many times.
I found the strange, high, wild crying of her flamenco
in some ways much like the primitive Negro blues of the deep South.
The words and music were filled with heartbreak,
yet vibrant with resistance to defeat,
and hard with the will to savor life in spite of its vicissitudes.
The poor of Madrid adored La Niña de los Peines…
who refused to leave her besieged city, and whose voice
became part of the strength of Madrid’s
stubborn resistance under the long-range guns,
a few miles away.
– from I Wonder As I Wander
by Langston Hughes
Thank you for reading!
— Kelly J Hardesty
Scroll down to the end—and you can leave me note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.
You Can Read More…
notes & footnotes
The Elusive Langston Hughes
by Hilton Als
The New Yorker
February 16, 2015
Langston Hughes, Writer, 65
The New York Times
May 23, 1967
quote found at
The Poetry Foundation
in his 1992 introduction to the 1992 reprint of
The Big Sea: An Autobiography
by Langston Hughes
original copyright 1940
University of Kansas
Luna Insight Image Collections
Reveries of an Itinerant Poet
by Jonathan Beecher
The Harvard Crimson
December 13, 1956
You don’t need a fallout shelter to listen to
the “Organ Grinder’s Swing” by Jimmie Lunceford:
Photos courtesy of
National Institute of Flamenco
in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Zora and Langston: A story of friendship and betrayal
by Yuval Taylor (2019)
an excellent book for anyone interested
in Harlem in the 1920s, or
in Zora Neale Hurston, or in Langston Hughes, or in what
they two had together: friendship, feud, collaboration, and falling-out.
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© Kelly J Hardesty 2022