He was the god of the Harlem Renaissance; a man of the beleaguered black experience who brought its struggles to the world’s attention through visceral prose.
Langston Hughes is arguably the most prolific black poet of all time. His words, forty-eight years after his death, still eerily resonate with the African-American experience of the twenty-first century. Does that mean that there has been no progress for peace or that Langston himself was more than a poet, but a prophet of our disenfranchised culture?
The poems I am about to share with you are from Hughes’s compilation of poems called “The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times.” It is important for every human being to recognize that the black experience is every culture’s experience. While the black experience has now been diluted with the milk of political correctness, there are still innocent blacks dying at the hands of police, being brutally murdered in their sacred sanctuaries, and being told “All lives matter, so what’s the big deal?”
Langston replies to this inane question in his poem Freedom:
Freedom will not come
Today this year
Through compromise and fear
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my own two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say
Let things take their course
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I am dead
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
“Just as you” may seem like a very difficult idea to confederate flag wavers and the complacent that do not understand how important it is to care about the well-being of everyone in our society. Here is a powerful teaching moment to exercise empathy for those of you who still struggle with connecting to the black experience:
Langston Hughes commentated on the deaths of young black men in the hands of police then and now:
Death In Yorkville – James Powell (summer, 1964)
How many bullets does it take
To kill a fifteen-year-old kid?
How many bullets does it take
to kill me?
How many centuries does it take
To bind my mind-chain my feet-
Rope my neck-lynch me-
From the slave chain to the lynch rope
To the bullets of Yorkville,
Jamestown, 1619 to 1963:
100 years NOT free
Civil War Centennial: 1965
How many Centenials does it take
To kill me,
When the long hot summers come
While this work references the Harlem riots when Lt. Thomas Gilligan fatally killed a fifteen year old boy, this poem eerily foreshadows the deaths of 70 African-Americans in police custody from 1999-2014. As the death toll continues to rise, this is my call to Langston:
It’s worse than before!
No one says nigger or negro anymore
(To our faces, no that would be too bold)
But the line between is thicker than before
We still die in the street
At the hands
Of the Law
There is nothing more frightening
To a bigot with a padlocked mind
With nappy hair
Connected to the idea that all is fair
In a world
That continues to struggle and despair
In desperate need
And Langston says:
Like a banner
For the proud-
Not like a shroud.
Like a song
Not moan or cry.
But how can we not cry? How can we sit idly by and allow genocide?
I could tell you,
If wanted to,
What makes me
What I am.
But I don’t
Really want to-
And you don’t
Give a damn.
On a Sunday morning in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, four little girls were killed in a hate bombing in their sanctuary. In the summer of 2015, six women and three men met their death by a mass hate shooting in Charleston, South Carolina. Senseless hatred over the beauty of brown skin has not come to an end.
Birmingham Sunday – Sept. 15, 1963
Four little girls
Who went to Sunday School that day
And never came back home at all
But left instead
Their blood upon the wall
With spattered flesh
And bloodied Sunday dresses
Torn to shreds by dynamite
That China made aeons ago
Did not know
That what china made
Before China was ever Red at all
Would redden with their blood
This Birmingham-on-Sunday Wall.
Four tiny girls,
Who left their blood upon that wall,
In little graves today await
The dynamite that might ignite
The fuse of centuries of Dragon Kings
Whose tomorrow sings a hymn
The missionaries never taught Chinese
In Christian Sunday School
To implement the Golden Rule
Four little girls
Might be awakened someday soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among magnolia trees.
Every woman is one of those four girls. I am one of those four little girls that still has a shred of quixotic hope that we can all live together in harmony and celebrate the beauty of diversity. But the stories still must be told, the harsh lessons passed down, the noble act of forgiveness a daily practice. We must never forget.
Perhaps that is what is so scary to Racist America. Racist America are you afraid that we African-Americans will act as insanely as you? Do you think we will get into our pick up trucks with black power flags perched on the truck bed like you do with your confederate flags? Do you think we will begin rounding up young white women to rape, young white men with great promise to burn alive after we piss on them? Do you think we will hang your fathers? Burn crosses on your lawn? Is that why you keep us so busy working two jobs to keep food on our table?
Do you think this level of hatred is what we African-Americans are capable of?
As I think of the grief of black history and the current struggles we face, I call to my ancestral spirit guide, Langston Hughes. I look to his wisdom in his written and unwritten words. I am not filled with despair but a fiery hope. The same firey hope that bore the hymns of the toiling fields. This is a hope that burns a light for all lives lost, and fuels a dream to see the world unified in all of its fragile glory.
Gather out of star-dust
And splinters of hail,
One handful of dream-dust
Not for sale.