Today is Langston Hughes’ birthday. He was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. I don’t recall any exposure to Langston Hughes in school. Being educated in an era that emphasized dead white poets, Hughes wouldn’t have qualified on ethnicity or on having been dead long enough. As an adult, though, I’ve noticed that a Langston Hughes poem seems to crop up in my life now and then–usually, at just the moment that a bit of hope or a bit of enlightenment is needed.
I looked at three books in honor of Langston Hughes birthday today:
- My People by Langston Hughes, photographs by Charles R. Smith Jr.
- The Dream Keeper and Other Poems by Langston Hughes, 75th Anniversary Edition
- Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo, illustrated by Bryan Collier
The first, My People, is one that I read to a group of five and six year olds last summer. For the past two summers, I’ve read for an hour a week to the youngest campers in a summer program that was originally started when black children weren’t welcome in other programs. SPROG continues to serve the needs of African American families in our community. This version of Hughes’ poem “My People” was illustrated by Charles R. Smith’s stunning photographic portraits of black people in all age groups. It’s a lovely book but one of a handful I’ve come across that is somewhat awkward to read as the only white person in the room. As the photographer wrote in the afterword, “Langston wrote the poem to celebrate the pride he had for his black brothers and sisters in the late 1920s when blacks were not acknowledged much in society….His words were not meant to dismiss other races; just to celebrate his own.” I’m not sure my little campers are aware of the awkwardness and their teen counselors are too kind to say anything.
I can bring Langston Hughes into our reading circle in other ways that aren’t awkward. His book The Dream Keeper and Other Poems was originally published in 1932 for young readers. I haven’t tried reading poems that aren’t picture books to my group, but I suspect that they would sit still for one or two short poems per session. The afterword of this edition was written by Augusta Baker who was a children’s librarian in the 1930s and remembers that her young listeners enjoyed “Mother to Son” and “Youth.”
Here’s a poem from The Dream Keeper and Other Poems that might please all of us dealing with winter weather today. Late this week, when the clouds have cleared and the crescent waxing moon appears in the sky, would be a great time to read or recite this poem:
How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!
How thin and sharp and ghostly white
Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!
The third book, Visiting Langston by Willie Perdomo, is not by Langston Hughes, but is a picture book about a girl, “going with my daddy to visit Langston’s house.” The illustrations are richly colored collages of paper and fabric with drawing for the finest details, mostly faces. The girl, it turns out, writes poetry, too, like Langston Hughes. I think my kids will like the illustrations and the song-like quality of the words.