At least that’s what I learned in high school. Without context or access to the whole body of his work, I didn’t recognize his greatness as a poet. That all changed about three years ago when I accepted an invitation to participate in the Langston Hughes Annual Community Poetry Reading. This year was the fifteenth, organized by Anne Edmunds Clanton and sponsored by the RISD Museum of Art.
It’s an honor, and kind of scary to read. Many of the readers are actors, musicians, teachers and storytellers. The Mayor of Providence reads a poem. This year featured storyteller Len Cabral, Jamele Adams, teacher and poet, actor Ramona Bass-Kolobe, Anne Clanton (a formidable presence) and many other accomplished and experienced performers. Pretty daunting company and a high bar. The Daniel Ian Smith Trio provides jazz improvisation and background for those who want their reading set to music.
Hearing Hughes’ poems read out loud for two hours I discovered how they work together. Each short piece relates to others, forming a whole that reflects the Harlem he lived in and loved. That reflects the country he loved. Patriotism runs through his work, the desire to see America truly be a nation of liberty and justice for all.
Last year’s reading happened right after the inauguration of President Obama. This year, Hughes’ themes of unemployment, long workdays, struggling to pay the rent, all hit uncomfortably close to home. His poem, ‘Birmingham Sunday’ about the bombing that killed four little girls in 1963, does not rest easily in the past.
That poem, and others, can be read here. His books remain in print.
The sixteenth is planned for February 2011, check out RISD for details.