Depression era moms and a poem by Langston Hughes

“Oh, God of Dust and Rainbows,
Help us to see
That without the dust the rainbow
Would not be.”
– Langston Hughes



Family during the Great Depression (Oklahoma) by Dorothea Lange (1936), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div. digital ID cph.3c29107

As a youngster, Mother to Son was one of the first poems I read by Langston Hughes. He had me hooked right away.  I wondered when and where he’d met my mother and my grandmother. Their native language and my mom’s American idiom were different from that of Hughes’ anonymous mom but the song was the same. These were Great Depression era (1929 – late ’30s) mothers. Yes! even mine. My big sister was born in 1936. It was a hard time for most everyone but harder still for minorities, emigres, and single mothers. Hughes wrote the poem when he was twenty-one years old, so the poem actually predates the Depression and he is illustrating the Black-American experience and a mother encouraging her son to preserver in spite of all. This poem, however, has such a wonderful heroic quality and a continuing universal appeal. This is the voice of mothers throughout time and all over the world who are living in strained circumstances.

Mother to Son

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

– Langston Hughes, excerpt from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
© Hughes’ estate

Langston Hughes (1943) by Gordon Parkes / Public Domain

LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), an inspiration in so many ways,  was a social activist and leader of the HarlemRenaissance, a poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist.  Hughes was an early innovator of a new style in his time, jazz poetry – i.e. jazz-like rhythms, improvisational feel – and much of his poetry was on social justice themes. (Jazz poetry tends to be consider outsider art. It is the root of poetry slams and hip-hop.)



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Recent in digital publications: 
* Four poemsI Am Not a Silent Poet
* Remembering Mom, HerStry
* Three poems, Levure littéraire
Upcoming in digital publications:
“Over His Morning Coffee,” Front Porch Review

A homebound writer, poet, and former columnist and associate editor of a regional employment newspaper, my work has been featured widely in print and digital publications including: Ramingo’s Porch, Vita Brevis Literature, Connotation Press, The Bar None Group, Salamander Cove, I Am Not a Silent Poet, The Compass Rose and California Woman. I run The Poet by Day, an info hub for poets and writers and am the founding/managing editor of The BeZine.


“Every pair of eyes facing you has probably experienced something you could not endure.”  Lucille Clifton



 

Langston Hughes’ Poetic Homage to Helen Keller

Helen Keller

“For, after all, every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.” Helen Keller, The Story of My Life [recommended – Kindle version is a whopping sixty-cents]



In the dark,
Found light
Brighter than many ever see.
She,
Within herself,
Found loveliness,
Through the soul’s own mastery.
And now the world receives
From her dower:
The message of the strength
Of inner power.

– Langston Hughes

HELEN KELLER (1880-1968) is a hugely compelling figure for so many of us, an inspiration. She was the first deaf and blind person to earn a B.A.  – at Harvard University, no less.  She was a writer and activist.

LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967) – also an inspiration – was a social activist and leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a poet, novelist, playwright, and columnist.  Hughes was an early innovator of a new style in his time, jazz poetry – i.e. jazz-like rhythms, improvisational feel – and much of his poetry was on social justice themes. (Jazz poetry tends to be consider outsider art. It is the root of poetry slams and hip-hop.)

Photo credit: United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID cph.3c12513; Am uncertain of the copyright status. The photographer is unknown.


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ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE WALDORF ASTORIA HOTEL, Langston Hughes

Langston Huges (1902-1967), American Poet, Writer, and Social Activist

Langston Hughes (1902-1967), American Poet, Writer, and Social Activist

Even as I sorted through books one day – including cookbooks – in preparation for a garage sale to be held before moving into disabled-senior housing, a new cookbook enters. A gift from my son, it’s Oscar Tschirky’s (1886-1950) recipe collection. Oscar Tschirky was the famous maître d’hôtel at the Waldorf-Astoria, which has some special meaning for me. Occasionally my mom liked to go to the café there for blueberry pancakes. It was as close as she could get to being an elegant respectable lady as the world defines such. The book reminds me of her and the poem that follows.

Langston Hughes wrote the poem after walking past the Waldorf during the Great Depression. I’ve read that it was originally published in New Masses magazine, a long defunct American Marxist publication that was the literary organ of the cultural left during and after the Depression.

“The hotel opened,” Hughes wrote in The Big Sea: An Autobiography, “at the very time when people were sleeping on newspapers in doorways, because they had no place to go. But suites in the Waldorf ran into thousands a year, and dinner in the Sert Room was ten dollars! (Negroes, even if they had the money, couldn’t eat there. So naturally, I didn’t care much for the Waldorf-Astoria.)”

ADVERTISEMENT FOR THE WALDORF-ASTORIA HOTEL

Fine living . . . a la carte?
Come to the Waldorf-Astoria!

LISTEN HUNGRY ONES!
Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the
new Waldorf-Astoria:

“All the luxuries of a private home. . . .”
Now, won’t that be charming when the last flop-house
has turned you down this winter?
Furthermore:
“It is far beyond anything hitherto attempted in the hotel
world. . . .” It cost twenty-eight million dollars.
The famous Oscar Tschirky is in charge of banqueting.
Alexandre Gastaud is chef. It will be a distinguished
background for society.
So when you’ve no place else to go, homeless and hungry
ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags–
(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good
enough?)

ROOMERS
Take a room at the new Waldorf, you down-and-outers–
sleepers in charity’s flop-houses where God pulls a
long face, and you have to pray to get a bed.
They serve swell board at the Waldorf-Astoria. Look at the menu, will
you:

GUMBO CREOLE
CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE
BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF
SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM
WATERCRESS SALAD
PEACH MELBA

Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.
Why not?
Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of
your labor, who clip coupons with clean white fingers
because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed gar-
ments, poured steel to let other people draw dividends
and live easy.
(Or haven’t you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bit-
ter bread of charity?)
Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get
warm, anyway. You’ve got nothing else to do.

– Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ photograph is in the public domain. The poem may be in the public domain too given when it was written. 

I, too, sing America … Langston Hughes poem at the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture, opens September 24, 2016

National Museum of African American History and Culture.  Opens September 24, 2016

AMERICAN POETRY: Langston Hughes’ I, too, sing America will be used in the opening ceremonies on Saturday for the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian in DC.

The poem predates the Civil Rights Movement by about ten years:

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

– Langston Hughes

The website with details on the grand opening is HERE.

The photograph is by Fuzheado under CC BY-SA 4.0 license