Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Langston Hughes

Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo, illustrated by Bryan Collier.

February 1 is the birthday of Langston Hughes. He is one of my favorite poets, so I always remember his birthday. I will be posting one of his poems for Friday Poetry this week, and today I am reading two books about him to my second graders.

Visiting Langston was written by Willie Perdomo, who the jacket flap says was raised eight blocks away from Langston Hughes’s house in Harlem, New York. It is illustrated by Bryan Collier, who now lives in Harlem. I wrote about his book Uptown in October.

While we are posting author/illustrator pictures, here is Floyd Cooper. They all qualify for HMOCL don’t you agree?

Visiting Langston is written in verse and tells of a young girl visiting the home of Langston Hughes at 20 East 127th Street, which has landmark status. 127th street has been renamed Langston Hughes Place. The artwork in this book is colorful collage with paintings of Langston, Harlem and the young girl and her father. I particularly like this section:

Langston Hughes
Wrote poems
Like jazz
Sang like love
Cried like blues

It plays on the musicality of his name, which falls off my tongue like water. I like how Harlem is shown to be a place of light and vibrant life. I like how the little girl is spending the day with her father and planning to write poetry just like Langston. This is a beautiful little book for celebrating the life and poetry of a great man. Bryan Collier says, “I dedicate this book to both children and adults. I point you all to the artistry of Langston Hughes because in it there is a mirror, a place for you.” Willie Perdomo, in his preface says, “If you asked him (Hughes) why he started writing he would say that it started when his grandmother used to sit him in her lap and tell him stories.”

I know from reading Coming Home; from the life of Langston Hughes by Floyd Cooper that Langston was raised by his grandmother for many years when his mother was trying to make her name as an actress and his father was living and working in Mexico. His father was a lawyer but left Kansas because of difficulties finding work due to racism. As a young child Langston lived with his grandmother and listened to her stories of family heroes. Her first husband had ridden with John Brown and was killed in the struggle. One of his uncles was a lawyer that was elected to Congress. Two other of his uncles were Buffalo soldiers. She herself had worked on the Underground Railroad. She took Langston to Topeka to hear Booker T. Washington speak.

Langston was able to visit his mother and together they went to Mexico to visit his father. When his grandmother grew older and became too sick to care for him he lived with family friends for two years. He lived in Illinois with his mother and went to high school in Cleveland OH. On one of the adoption forums I visit someone posted a list of famous adoptees and his name was on the list along with Jesse Jackson, Nelson Mandela, and Malcolm X. All of these men lived with adults other than their parents for part of their childhoods, but they weren’t adopted. I think it is doing a disservice to them and their families to label them adoptees. Langston had many hardships to overcome but losing his parents to adoption wasn’t one of them. His father paid for his first year of college at Columbia. His family was a bedrock part of his growing up to be the brilliant poet he became. Floyd Cooper says, “Sometimes Langston’s ma would send for him. He’d ride the train to the Kansas City Bottoms where she’d meet him and off they’d go. They’d see plays, the opera, and visit the library, where Langston was fascinated by the big, bright, silent reading room, the long smooth tables, and librarians who would so kindly get books for him. Sometimes, when she was busy, his mother would leave him at his uncle Des’s barbershop. He liked it there, right in the center of the black district.”

Hughes is known for his celebration of his people. He is known for being an African American who celebrated his race and skin color in his work. His joyful adoration of blackness in the face of hatred and racism is one of the things that attract me to his poetry. Wikipedia says, “Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism absent of self-hate that united people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encouraged pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. Langston Hughes was one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists.”

Hughes’s genius for taking his sadness and pain and turning it into a shout of joy is a gift to the world. For many years I have delighted in sharing his poetry with my students, whatever their race. Not only is his poetry inspirational and affirming for black kids, but I think his poetry give an opportunity for little white boys and girls to be able to imagine themselves in this poem:

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 coming tenderly
Black like me.

I think maybe Bryan Collier wrote his dedication (quoted above) with black kids in mind, meaning that the mirror of Langston’s artistry would affirm them and their blackness. That is wonderful. But I think the mirror works for me and everyone else as well, because it shows our humanity. In feeling and seeing Langston’s way we become stronger, more compassionate, and wiser. This mirror of his art is how we will come together. Especially for the white kids studying Black History Month who have no black kids in their school or adult black role models in their community. They need to be able to imagine themselves rejoicing in blackness and growing like a tree safe and free and happy in the world. How else will they build a better world together?


Anonymous said...

Where do such kids, without up close and personal contact with pigtails and (dare I say it? ) peasies live? Tell me, and I'll send a kid or two.

Willie Perdomo. Bryan Collier. Langston Hughes' House, where we would all gather to do massive readings, and celebrate his existence, corporeal and canonized.

Don't make me name drop.

How beautiful the cover of this book. I haven't even opened it in about two years. I smack the back of my own hand. Ouch!

Andromeda Jazmon said...

Girl you need a blog. I want to hear some more of this! Where do your stories live?

Anonymous said...

Just dropping by to say hello. I love seeing all these books I didn't know about.

Don Tate II said...

Two of my favorite illustrators. I'm still trying to get where they've been.

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I am on my way to my son's first grade class to read Visiting Langston and the Sweet and Sour Animal book in honor of Hughes' birthday. This day is especially honored in our house, as my son shares the same name as the wonderful poet!!!

Anonymous said...

I know...I'm stalking you. Like a girl in summer, who has just been kissed. (Sorry).

The stories live in the jet stream that I shall hop upon just this evening as I reconnect with the source: NYC. They fill the night sky above the huge homes of my neighborhood, here in San Diego, and cry into my garden, which will not bring forth her snapdragon, forget-me-not, red velvet celosia, and sweet pea.

Anonymous said...

Great tribute to Langston.