Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1950s and 1960s

It’s all over but the shouting from the RNC. Wait. It was all shouting all along, and we have three and a half months of shouting left before the general. And the DNC still to come. Well, luckily for everybody there are tons more great American poets to read? I guess?

In the meantime, the rest of Langston Hughes. He was a national figure by this time in his life–commenting occasionally in verse on his position, the difficulties of reputation and the particular type of fame that comes of being a political poet and writer and particularly a Black American political poet and writer.

This is where the big projects come in, Montage of a Dream Deferred and the jazz settings Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. The latter are so thoroughly performance pieces that while I understand why they were reprinted–this is attempting to be a comprehensive collection that I’ve read, after all–I feel that it’s almost impossible to assess them as written works. They’re an interesting thing for a poet to want to do, an interactive form. But as words on a page, they don’t work very well.

The former, though. You almost certainly know the one that gets called Dream Deferred, whose title is listed in this volume as “Harlem,” the one that starts, “What happens to a dream deferred?” It’s only one in a large sequence, one that talks about difficulty making rent, buying shoes, finding one’s way. Difficulty and triumph and…vivid small detail, is how I suppose I would put it. These are life poems, people poems, neighbor poems of Harlem. A lot of them are brief, like the straightforward Tell Me; others paint pictures of a rising 1950s urban black population, finding its way and its voice, like Theme for English B. I think my favorite out of the entire series is Deferred, which elegantly and simply encapsulates the concept. It’s very real, very human.

There’s a lot more straightforward religious poetry in this period of Hughes’ life–anyone who thought that the earlier “Goodbye Christ” meant that he was a raging atheist would have a hard time constructing the argument with the evidence provided. The politics of the time keep providing him with unfortunately ample material for commentary, as of course they would into the present if he’d lived that long, but after the war, into the ’50s, housing became increasingly important. Little Song on Housing showed with bitter good humor that integration was not immediate solution one might have hoped. And one of the poems that still could hold true for so many people, in so many situations, in today’s politics, is Impasse.

We’re still in that same impasse so much of the time. It’s a good one to end on. It’s a good one to try to get out of.

Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1940s

The 1940s! Surely there’s nothing to be said about combating overly simplified political narratives, propaganda, infighting, and or demagoguery in that decade, right?

…um.

The poems Langston Hughes wrote in the 1940s did not stop calling American domestic politics to account. The Bitter River was a cry of anguish and anger after two more very young Black Americans were lynched. But the thing most of us think of when we think of the 1940s, WWII, gave Hughes a very sharp focus as he called his country to account. I think a lot of American historical accounts act as though the rise in attention to Black civil rights was something that came with the Second World War, but leaders like Hughes were seeing the parallels in prejudice and ill-treatment all along, and calling them out in poems like Beaumont to Detroit: 1943. There was no dawning “wait a minute” afterwards for thinkers, activists, and artists like Hughes: all along, he was saying that Hitler and Jim Crow had the same goals of prejudice, cruelty, inequality.

Still, the poems of the 1940s took a turn for the more lyrical and upbeat than the poems of the 1930s–not all of them, but there was a lot more fun interspersed, and a lot more poking affectionate fun at himself and those near him. Poems like “It Gives Me Pause” and Morning After are in most ways lighter than the entire section from the 1930s. Hughes also introduces the series of poems about Madam Alberta K. Johnson, an opinionated woman full of character and spark. My favorite, not immediately showing up online, is “Madam and the Wrong Visitor,” but I also like Madam and the Minister; I like all of them really, at least from the 1940s. I’d have Madam Johnson (Alberta K) over for coffee any day of the week.

And one of the poems that I would have thought any American could agree was openly positive, sentimental patriotism–until I heard some of the things said about immigrants lately–is Second Generation: New York. That a Black American of that generation reached inside himself to find that beauty in empathy for New Yorkers of mixed white ethnicities is the best of America, the best of urban living in urbane cities everywhere. And anyone who thinks that that kind of intergenerational empathy only works if it’s specifically about Ireland or Poland needs to sit down and have a good hard look at what Hughes was really talking about and why.

Tomorrow the RNC is over, but I haven’t gotten through all the poems–a decade at a time was about all that I could take on–so I’m going to take the rest of the week to finish this off. I don’t see any good reason not to.

Langston Hughes and RNC: the 1930s

It’s a relief when people get in trouble for what they actually said. It makes things easier, more straightforward. What does that have to do with the RNC going on? Well, you decide, that’s up to you. But Langston Hughes, well. Most of the stuff that people try to call him out for, oh yes, he said that stuff. He did that stuff.

The context of him saying it, now. That’s a little trickier.

Take Goodbye Christ, possibly Hughes’ most controversial poem. It was hard to find a link that didn’t go into explanation, exegesis, excuses for that one. It’s not a poem that goes well with the Gospel sentiments of some of Hughes’ poetry of the 1920s–or perhaps it could be. It might not be so hard, after all, to see how the same poet who was inspired by the message of Jesus and his ministry could be pretty turned off by the modern followers who claim to speak in His name. But he did not pull any punches in saying so; he did not hedge it around or pull his punches, and if you want to view it as an angry rejection of actual Jesus, that’s there to be had, go ahead.

The 1930s saw, in addition to the poem that kicked off this blog series, overtly political poem after overtly political poem from Hughes. He was paying attention to labor conditions–it was the 1930s, who could ignore them?–the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (mostly ignored or unknown by modern white readers). By the time he got to Song for Ourselves, with “Czechoslovakia lynched on a swastika cross,” the litany of “oh crap what now” looks simultaneously historically familiar and…contemporary. Highly contemporary. Relevant.

This is where the people who are sure that Hughes was a Communist start to have their fodder. There are poems to Lenin, and Good Morning Revolution and its ilk are not exactly subtle. They aren’t trying to be. As another American three decades later would tell us, you gotta sing loud if you want to end war and stuff.

Not everyone likes this approach. Not everyone liked it then. Nor did Hughes like everyone else’s approach, as the poem To Certain Negro Leaders makes pithily clear. There’s a lot of variety in this decade of Hughes poems–short, long, rhyming, non-rhyming, ranging the world over–but by the beginning of the 1930s Hughes had won himself a place, a soapbox, a voice, and it looks like he wasn’t about to give it up for anything.

I’m not sure we’d have heard of him if he had.

Langston Hughes and the RNC: the 1920s

I turned on my Twitter feed long enough to see that Donald Trump is the official nominee, as we have known he would be for weeks now. They have various people doing the sorts of things a convention does. So here’s your reminder from Langston Hughes that I, Too.

“I, Too” (also often called “I, Too, Sing America”) is both prophetic in an era when our current President is Black, and not prophetic enough. All sorts of Americans are still being sent to eat in the kitchen. It’s also one of the most openly political poems Hughes published in the 1920s. Not that he was apolitical at the time, but he had not come into his full fierceness until the end of that decade–the section I read today was the section of his poems from the 1920s, and they had a lot of jazz lyrics, a lot of blues lyrics, a lot of things that were cultural references, whose political stance was inherent by what they considered important enough to write a poem about, who they considered important enough to write a poem for, rather than overt.

One of the clearest things going on in American history of the time that’s showing up in Hughes’ poems was the Great Migration. Poems like The South and “Migration” are chronicling one of the greatest and most influential movements of people inside the US, ever, and one that was not taught in American history when I was in school. (I hope it is now.) Even some poems that have the form of nature poems are implicitly from the perspective of someone for whom nature has changed, grown chillier and more seasonally sharpened–someone who has gone north.

One of the poems I liked best from this era is one that I can’t find easily online because it’s also the title of a Hughes biography, “Dreamer.” It’s short, and I think some of you will need it, so I’m going to put it here, with more tomorrow. It’s a very young man’s poem. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes there is a great deal right with that.

Dreamer

I take my dreams

And make of them a bronze vase

And a wide round fountain

With a beautiful statue in its center,

And a song with a broken heart,

And I ask you:

Do you understand my dreams?

Sometimes you say you do

And sometimes you say you don’t.

Either way

It doesn’t matter.

I continue to dream.

Making America: Langston Hughes and the RNC

Back when Donald Trump was not even the certain nominee, I heard the slogan “Make America great again.” And a voice whispered in my head, “America was never America to me.”

Such are the perils of an education: put in demagoguery and get out Langston Hughes. Let America Be America Again is the poem I mean, and it’s well worth reading in its entirety. Please do. And at the time I thought: we’re going to need something to get us through this RNC. We’re going to need Langston Hughes.

Friends, I had no idea.

I had no idea that we were going to see so many more shot in the streets this summer even before the protests during the convention start. (I hope for peace and free speech this week. I hope. The rest of this year–and some of our country’s history with political conventions–makes me very nervous.) But there’s Langston Hughes, with his stanzas reminding us that it’s like this, we’ve been here before. The Thirties were like this, the Sixties. We’re like this. America is this. We can’t say we didn’t see it coming. If we didn’t see it coming, it’s because we didn’t look.

And–one of the reasons I love this poem. One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this poem, about all of his poems. Is that it is so much more passionately patriotic than the slogan. “Make America great again” is beaten any day by “The land that never has been yet–and yet must be.” Who loves you more? The person who wants to restore you to your high school glory, or the person who thinks you can be better than you’ve ever been? Who believes in you more? The person who thinks you’ve peaked or the person who thinks you have far to go?

I know two women who had strokes in middle age. For a lot of people, that would be it, a clear sign that whatever they did next would be lesser-than, a decline. One has gone on to change how she does her visual and tactile art form for the better. The other has built on a career of being a great storyteller to find ways to be a great wordsmith as well–to find ways to make lightning bugs into lightning. Neither one did it by pretending that bad things never happened, that her health was perfect. As an individual, as a people–you can’t. You make a better way forward–you approach a dream–by acknowledging that the bad things have happened. That they have happened to you. That they are a part of you. Langston Hughes has to acknowledge enslavement of Black Americans and dispossession of the Native Americans from the land. He has to acknowledge class inequality and gangsterism and greed as part of American history. Because if he doesn’t, he can’t see his way around them to the bigger dream past them, without them. There is no Golden Age for Langston Hughes to hearken back to because he’s willing to work to build one that’s never existed before. And when he describes the dream as almost dead today, he’s willing to tell you who’s almost killed it and how.

There’s going to be a lot more about that as I read and blog about his collected poems this week. Langston Hughes has a lot of punches not to pull and a lot of beliefs he will come right out and tell you in words, not sideways or sneakily. Like: “LIBERTY!
FREEDOM!
DEMOCRACY!
True anyhow no matter how many
Liars use those words.” (That’s from In Explanation of Our Times, which talks about people with no titles in front of their names getting to talk. Which is going on now too I think. And how they–and Langston Hughes–would not shut up.)

And that’s worth talking about this week. Every week. But this week in particular. So come on ahead and join me, blog about it, tweet about it, whatever you like. That’s the only way we get there from here.

Okay, let’s talk about great. Really.

I put this on more ephemeral social media yesterday, but not everybody reads me there, and things are easy to miss. So.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan always reminds me of the Langston Hughes poem https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_America_be_America_Again. Somehow I don’t think that Hughes and Trump see eye to eye on this matter, but I keep getting Hughes in my head instead of Trump: “the land that never has been yet–and yet must be–”

And it got me thinking about how I keep saying positive, positive, positive. So okay. Time for a positive. It’s looking alarmingly like the Republican National Convention is either going to wind up with Trump as a nominee or a massive fight to keep him out, and the fallout around the whole thing is deeply alarming. And I think we’re all going to want something positive to talk about around then.

Something like the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

So at the beginning of July, I’m going to post a reminder that this is coming up. For those of you who are slower readers or have library systems with big backlogs, you can start now if you like. For me, I’ll pick up the book after Readercon. But the RNC is July 18-21, and I intend to spend at least some of the time during those days talking in various online forums about the Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Anyone who wants to is welcome to join me, and spend some attention looking at a great American poet who had serious ideas about making America great again. For everybody.

(When I say “anyone”–you don’t have to be American to do this. Everyone’s politics and everyone’s art affects everyone else, and it’s not like the rest of you have been able to dodge Trump. At least we can share Langston Hughes with you too.)

Where it starts, where it winds up.

I’m not going to say if it upsets you when there’s a mass shooting or police brutality, because you’re human. You don’t have to do a performative dance of grief for every person killed, every city that has to rise up and say no, enough, for me to know that you feel it. But if you’re American. If this is your country, in which all this is happening. That if, not the first one. If you’re American and of voting age.

Vote in your local elections.

Every news outlet in the country is trying to sell us the next presidential election as a two-year story–as the two-year story–and if that works, they’ll pitch it to us for three next time. Not even senators–say nothing of representatives. Just presidents, presidents, presidents. And not presidential policy. Future possible presidential policy. Hypothetical presidents. That is The News Cycle; that is what Serious People Who Care About The News care about.

Bullshit.

When it all goes down, when it’s your city or the city next door to it, the president can send in the National Guard if it comes to that, the president can make sad speeches on the TV and reach out to bereaved parents–and we are at a place, as a country, where we know that it’ll be time for another sad speech and some more bereaved parents next week. We know that their grief will be as real and as fresh and as meaningful as last week’s bereaved parents, and the president can reach out to them with five minutes between climate change talks and trying to get those Indonesian fires under control. Hey, remember those? Giant, rampaging fires ruining the air quality of much of the south end of Asia and destroying huge precious forests? No, never mind, in eleven months one of these yahoos might be on a major party ticket; we have to run footage of them at a pancake breakfast.

But when it all goes down–the part for which they’ll interrupt the pancake breakfast–the people who make the immediate decisions about what will happen in your city or the city next door–those people were either elected or their hiring or appointment was set up by elected people. For the most part, that is who runs your city and county government. By the time the presidential election rolls around, you have a pretty good guess which way your state will swing, although you should vote anyway. But who will your ward want for alderman? Who will be your rep on the city council? In many places you will be voting on sheriffs. Sheriffs, come on, we have all seen how important they are. You will be voting on judges–even if it’s just to retain or deny them their seat. Think about that. The judges, the people who issue warrants or quash them? YOU CAN VOTE FOR THEM. You.

The people who decide in budget meetings whether your police force should spend its money on community relationship training and a little trailer to haul around a speed detector sign, or whether that money should go to riot gear. You elect those people. Or you don’t. Or you say, oh well, there’s nothing important to vote on this time. Meaning: it’s not a presidential election. Meaning: I have not been force-fed years of coverage of these people eating pancakes. They are slightly lumpy and do not spam me with glossy ads of themselves and their glossy children. They have improbable names and there are lots of them. This part of participatory democracy is work.

Wail your anguish on social media, by all means, or don’t. I trust that you have a human heart, that you feel that anguish either way. But if you only have $20 to give, or you only have an hour to volunteer, is it going to matter more to the presidential candidate or the person who wants to make sure your city has a good council member? And if it all goes down in your city next time, God forbid, don’t you want to look at the people who are making the decisions and think, well, I did the best I could to get good ones? Because sometimes there’s not much a good mayor or a good alderman or a good sheriff can do. But then there are those other times, and we’ve seen too much of them lately. I’d like to hope we’ve seen too much of them to keep ignoring the most immediate scale of action we have.

Fields of brilliance

So I was reading this article about how students describe professors differently based on gender, and that part of things is interesting and deserves its own look; it’s at the very least something to keep in mind and interrogate in your own dealings with people and their work. But it’s not what jumped out at me here.

What jumped out at me is the differential in who gets described as a genius by field. So the graph in that article shows that something like two-thirds of male physics professors are described as geniuses by their students, but only about one-third of female physics professors. However, if you follow that one-third line down the graph, you’ll see that from anthropology on down the list, that’s the high point–that’s the percentage of male professors described that way, and the percentage of female professors who get given that descriptor is even less (around ten percent or lower). So what’s going on there?

There are some fields that just do not get the same cultural cachet for requiring outstanding brilliance. Professors of biology or history, modern languages or criminal justice, do not seem to me to inherently require less intelligence, less insight, less creativity, less brilliance, than professors in other fields–nor to reward it less when it does appear. But the genius musician–the eccentric genius physicist–oh yes, we know those types. Those are characters we recognize, culturally. Whereas the genius business professor?…not so much. It may be that there actually are fewer geniuses working in psychology than in chemistry, but it seems to me at least as likely that people are predisposed to see innate genius rather than hard work in some fields, and vice versa in others.

I doubt that this is immutable. I especially doubt that it’s immutable when related to gender issues–see the example of physicians in Russia, for example, how the perception of that occupation changed when it became more heavily female. Is it coincidence that biology has more women than the other sciences and is the lowest on the “percentage genius” scale? Maybe. It may also be causal one way or the other: more room for women in fields where people don’t have an idea of a genius man as central to how that field works, or less likely to rate the field in general as requiring genius if it’s full of girls. Still, the discrepancy among fields seems to me to be also interesting and worth thinking about.

I will note that when I was a physicist and people asked what I did, I often heard, “WOW, you must be REALLY SMART!” And very few people say that to me about being a science fiction writer. Possibly because they’re trying to figure out how to say, “WOW, you must be REALLY WEIRD!” politely.

(Just go ahead and say it. We don’t mind.)

(But physicists are pretty weird. Just FYI.)

Short-short for your Monday morning

(It will not get longer if you read this later than Monday morning.)

Here is a new short story from me and Daily SF: Emma Goldman: A Biography for Space Aliens. As you will see at the top, this is in the Gronklorf and Fizzoom Notable Earthlings series. Gronklorf and Fizzoom’s Notable Earthlings! Buy the whole set for your spawn!

Or just read this one for free. Your call.

Correction of the sort I didn’t want

For years now the stats people–Nate Silver at Fivethirtyeight, for example–have been talking about how using only landlines to poll people about their voting intentions will skew the polls with so many people using cell phones preferentially now, undercounting certain demographics (particularly young ones).

Well, apparently 2014 is the year they decided to fix it: in addition to the five calls from pollsters I’ve gotten on my landline this week, I’ve gotten two on my cell. Whee. So now in addition to badgering me about my gubernatorial preferences when I’m trying to eat dinner at home, they can do it when I’m in a restaurant or in line at the grocery store, the pharmacy, the post office.

This is not what I call progress.

I don’t answer questions from pollsters anyway (typical conversation: “Are you likely to vote in the November 4 election?” “Yes, and that’s all I’m going to tell you about my vote”), so this is very much in the “waste of time and annoys the pig” category.

(I think I’ve said this before, but just in case the reference is missing: my grandpa had two categories of time waster, teaching a pig to sing–the most commonly cited one–and teaching a pig to wrestle. The former is a waste of your time and annoys the pig. The latter is a waste of your time, and the pig enjoys it.)

I can’t help but think that the politicians won’t be motivated to have any kind of call blocking list available for pollsters as for telemarketers, as they want the data too much. But it sure would be nice.