Langston Hughes on #Ferguson

I took my kids for a bike ride yesterday around the pond by our house.  I needed to get out of the house and off my computer. I couldn’t read any  more tweets, articles, blogs, Facebook posts or newscasts about Ferguson.   I needed a break.

So the boys rode and I walked along behind them and we stopped often to toss pebbles in the water, climb on the rocks and run in the grass.  About halfway around, Gryffin noticed what looked to be a behemoth birdhouse tucked just out of view.  When we got closer, he yelled, “mama!!  there are BOOKS in there!”

Turns out it was a Little Free Library.   That’s an actual thing, apparently.  People put them up in their front yard or in a public space and then folks just put books in or take books out when they pass by.  I read the little notice inside of ours detailing how it works and then we eagerly started digging through the books.  The boys were disappointed that there weren’t any books for them but I couldn’t believe my luck.  I walked away with 4 books!

I was most excited about Farewell to Manzanar  and Black Voices: An Anthology of African-American Literature.  I plopped down in the grass while the boys ran around and opened it to the poems of Langston Hughes.  If you aren’t familiar with Langston Hughes, he was an American poet, social activist, novelist and playwright.  He was a leader in the Harlem Renaissance and one of his most famous pieces is his poem, A Negro Speaks in Rivers.  


As I read through his poems in Black Voices, I realized that I hadn’t escaped the frenzy of Ferguson after all.  It’s not possible to escape it.  It’s all around me.  It’s in the black boy playing with his baby brother in the grass behind me.  It’s in my neighbors ambling along the path.  It’s in the squad car slowly rolling down the street.  It’s in my kids and my family, my church and my community center, my sons’ school and the Y down the street.   And it was right there in my new book.

While he didn’t grow up there, Langston Hughes was born in Missouri in 1902 and his poetry is prescient for the people of his home state.   It’s like he’s marching alongside them.   In his poetry I feel the longing and the frustration and the anger and the weary resilience that I’m seeing in Ferguson.

Dream Variations

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
       Dark like me —–
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance!  Whirl!  Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening…
A tall, slim tree…
Night comes tenderly
       Black like me.

As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright as a sun —
My dream.

And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
between me and my dream.
Rose slowly, slowly,
The light of my dream.
rose until it touched the sky —
The wall.

I am black.

I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.

My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this sahdow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!

 And finally, this one.   This is an excerpt from Hughes’ poem Theme for English B.  

Theme for English B

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age.  But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me — we two — you, me, talk on this page
(I hear New York, too.)   Me — who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records — Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white —
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me —
although you’re older — and white —
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.


So I can’t escape it and I don’t want to.  It’s good for me to be disquieted and discomfited.  I’m supposed to be uncomfortable right now.  But I think today I’ll sit with these poems instead of so much Twitter and Facebook.   The message stays the same but sometimes it helps to change the medium.

6 thoughts on “Langston Hughes on #Ferguson

  1. i remember the first time i read “dream differed” in high school english and then subsequently the play “raisin in the sun” which was based on that poem… my mind was blown, in a good way. i felt like there was a whole new dimension to life out there that was so different and yet shared a core thread to my own experience.

    love the little free library! we have one around the corner from our house. nico got a new book a few weeks ago and he’s learning spanish!

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