Reflection on “the rock on which
Freedom stumped its toe.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
The African American poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and jazz poetry pioneer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902–May 22, 1967) was in a sense the William Blake of his generation — like Blake, he was endowed with a rare poetic genius that incurred merciless ridicule by the era’s critics and was often wholly ignored by the public. In a New York Times Book Review essaypublished two years after his death, Lindsay Patterson went as far as calling him “the most abused poet in America” and wrote:
Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, ands most black critics only grudgingly admired him. Some, like James Baldwin, were downright malicious about his poetic achievement. But long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes’s poetry will be blatantly around, growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius.
Patterson was a far seer. Today, Hughes stands as one of the most beautiful, beloved, and important American voices of the past century, perched in time and thought partway between Walt Whitman and Ta-Nehisi Coates. His poems continue to speak to the problems and possibilities of his nation, making insistent room for responsibility and redemption in equal measure. To those of us who came to American from the outside, they offer an unparalleled framework for understanding the deep traumas and old scars of this country, which we are now inheriting and are equally tasked with healing.
Several years before his death, Hughes sat down to read his work and discuss the spirit behind it in a series of audio sessions for the BBC and Caedmon Records. Twenty-seven of these rare recordings were eventually assembled in the wonderful compilation Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes (public library). Among them is a sobering piece titled “We Are the American Heartbreak” — a discussion of the central themes and concerns fomenting Hughes’s literary imagination. He begins by reading one of his most poignant poems, “American Heartbreak,” but he changes the original opening line from “I am the American heartbreak” to “We are are the American heartbreak” — a wokeful invitation to pluralism all the timelier today:
We are the American heartbreak —
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe —
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
That is one of my poems about the problems of the Negro people in relation to American democracy. Perhaps we should say the problems of American democracy in relation to the Negro people, because for some reason the Negro in America has always been called “a problem.”
Well, I guess we are.
Many of my poems try to capture various aspects of this problem. I’ve written poems about housing. For example, when Negroes move into some American communities, even if it’s just one Negro family moving into a block, within a few days, sign begin to go up: “For Sale.” And, usually, the real estate brokers who handle the sales double the prices on those houses — because they know that Negro people often have a hard time buying decent homes, and so they charge them more for the homes that eventually they are willing to sell them.
Well, I try to put these things — these problems — into poetry. In recent years, more and more Americans have been leaving the big cities for suburban areas and among them have been a number of Negroes who are able to buy homes in the suburbs. Well, if those folks move to, say, Saint Albans, white people flee from Saint Albans, move a little further out on Long Island. Negroes — those of means — then themselves try to move a little further out on Long Island, white people flee a little further, and after a while … you get to the ocean.
So, I suppose, suburbia eventually will be only in the sea — I don’t know where else it could be, around New York, at any rate.
Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes is a treasure in its totality, featuring Hughes’s readings of classics like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and his reflections on how he became a poet. Complement it with his little-known children’s book about jazz and read some of his poems at the Academy of American Poets, then revisit Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s forgotten correspondence about racial relations and racial justice.