Harlem then was Jazzonia, and Langston Hughes was its coolest trumpet. Harlem then was sleek black men with noon in their teeth curled over silver horns in the low wattage of second floor rooms. What did it matter that it was destined to last but a blue hazy second of history?
In this flyspeck of 1920s time, before the Depression and the riot and the Great War, Harlem was the capital of the Negro universe, jumping and strutting all night. Living there in the middle '20s was like a foretaste of paradise, said the poet Arna Bontemps, who was part of what is now known as the Harlem Renaissance. Bontemps, like most of the others, like Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen, has receded with the blue smoke. But Langston Hughes, poet laureate of Harlem and the American black experience, stays the "wine-maiden of the jazz-tuned night." You can still hear his music: The Negro With the trumpet at his lips Whose jacket Has a fine one-button roll, Does not know Upon what riff the music slips Its hypodermic needle To his soul --
Langston Hughes' 80th birthday is next week, on Feb. 1. The poet will not be around to celebrate it, of course. He has been dead now nearly 15 years. All last week, under the grandiose title "Langston Lives," Washington was to have celebrated the life and prolific times of the greatest black lyric poet this country has yet produced. There were to have been symposiums and exhibitions and concerts, topped by a black-tie affair Sunday night at the Kennedy Center.
But time and weather have a way of webbing ironies. Many of last week's events were canceled due to snow and slow ticket sales. Maybe the Kennedy Center gala will come off this spring, says the producer. Maybe not. Langston lives, all right, but not through galas and testimonials. He lives through his work, and the intensity with which people remember him. And maybe this is just as it should be, however well-intended the tributes were. Hughes, who never took himself very seriously (though he was saying serious things), would likely savor the irony.
Samuel Johnson once said that if the work of an artist can outlast its century it becomes a classic. No one can say for certain the work of Langston Hughes will outlive the century, though its power and emotional texture would seem to promise that. But posterity is a mercurial mistress. Dreams -- like Harlem's -- can rot and die.
What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over -- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The Prolific Chronicler
Harlem then, before it exploded, was Happy Rhone's nightclub at 143rd and Lenox Avenue. Harlem then was the Cotton Club, where you couldn't go if you were black, but where you were more than welcome if you were an intrepid, jaded white venturing up from somewhere down below. They say W.C. Handy himself was turned away from there one night while his own music blared inside.
Downtown at the Palace, Ethel Waters was singing "Stormy Weather."
Soon enough would come the other Harlem, the one that glittered, but like broken glass. Langston Hughes would chronicle that one, too, though never so angrily as those who came behind him, like a James Baldwin, a Ralph Ellison.
"I suppose I am considered a spokesman for my people, although I have never consciously tried to be," Langston Hughes once said. "I have written what has happened to me. I don't like being pushed around and humiliated and being made to ride in freight elevators, but I have spoken only for myself."
He was a chain smoker. He liked to stay up all night. He never married.
Almost by the virtue of his amazing output alone, Langston Hughes could be termed unique. He was one of this century's first men of letters, black or white, excelling not only in the field of poetry, but in novels and plays and stories and autobiographies, too. Even librettos. And he did it with a deceptive simplicity, a seeming artlessness. His best poems seem not poems at all, just black speech. He was a folklorist before the word had vogue.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is considered the chronicler of the Jazz Age. But Fitzgerald, for all his genius, seems forever frozen in the amber of the '20s. Langston Hughes, who has never had half the popular acclaim of Fitzgerald, seems to span the century. He wrote nine full-length plays, 10 books of poetry, nine books of fiction, nine juvenile books, two autobiographies. For years he was a columnist for the Chicago Defender. He went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. He did the libretto for Kurt Weill's opera, "Street Scene." With the possible exception of W.E.B. DuBois, who was there as an angry eminence for the black world several decades before Hughes, no black writer has had a more profound impact on American culture.
The Busboy Poet
The legend is that he was discovered by the poet Vachel Lindsay at the Wardman-Park Hotel in Washington. Like most legends, it suffers from exaggeration. The old Wardman-Park is now the Sheraton-Park, and it is true that Hughes was a busboy there in 1925, and that Lindsay gave a reading to which colored people were not invited, and that a near-desperate, enterprising poet wrote out three of his poems and slipped them under the plate of the great midwestern poet. It is also true that Lindsay recognized genius in its embryonic form and, unbeknownst to Hughes, read the poems that night along with his own. The next morning The Washington Star came up to the Wardman-Park to get pictures of the "busboy poet." But as Hughes biographer Faith Berry, a Washingtonian, points out: What has been overlooked by the legend makers is that Hughes, though impecunious, had already published poems in several magazines and, in fact, had a book of poetry ready to roll off the presses from the Alfred A. Knopf company. The book was "The Weary Blues," and it was to make its author famous. After that, as a critic said, he was like Satchmo's trumpet, Yardbird's alto.
Langston Lives. So an old man with glossy shins sits in a rocker in a high-rise apartment in Northwest Washington. Harlem was a long time ago, though he was there. "All of us were young then and we went to the same parties," he says. The old man is five years younger than the century, two years younger than Langston Hughes would be were he alive today. The old man's name is Arthur Davis and he is retired from a lifetime of distinguished teaching and writing at Howard and other places. He was among the first in the country to write critical pieces about Langston Hughes. Throughout their lives they would keep in touch.
The old man is sitting with his legs crossed. On the table behind him are a half-dozen fragile volumes of poems and stories inscribed "To Arthur." The old man, the youngest of eight children, most of them dead now, is musing not only on Langston Hughes' life, but his own, too. He was born to a father who was born into slavery, he says. "My father stood on the banks of Hampton Roads and watched the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac." The old man nods. He inserts a caramel finger inside his shirt and rubs a hairless breastbone. And then he says:
"The first time I ever saw him he was standing in front of the Harlem Y with a red parrot on his shoulder. I think he had been to Paris. He had come back from one of his trips on a merchant ship. It must have been about 1926. It was bliss to be alive. You couldn't throw a rock in Harlem without hitting a poet, a musician. Fats Waller lived over top of my brother's medical office. Paul Robeson's pianist was across the street. Sometimes you'd see Robeson going in there. Anytime, in front of the Y, you could see Bojangles, yep, Bojangles Robinson.
"With Langston you felt you were in the presence of someone terribly important, unusual. You felt this strange power coming from him which wasn't flaunted or flouted. I mean, if you were in the presence of a DuBois you might experience an aloof, absolutely riveting person. With Langston you felt the depth of a man. Langston, I think, was the first professional black writer of the 20th century. What I mean by that is that before Langston other famous black writers had attach themselves to schools. Langston made it entirely as a writer. His house -- I think it was at East 127th Street -- was the home of a working writer. I remember he took me over there one night and showed me his study. All I remember were books."I've known rivers: I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The Artist Remembered
Why do we choose to remember one artist while others perish? How does a life relate to poetry, and why and how do a people make that life a part of their own lives? There aren't simple answers to that, but it must have to do somehow with a universality of vision. Langston Hughes wrote through four decades of American life, from the '20s into the torn '60s. He saw much of the world (in his youth he had shipped aboard freighters as a messboy) and wrote about many places other than Harlem, though that mysterious city-within-a-city seemed to touch everything he wrote, even when he wrote about Birmingham and freedom trains and little girls blown to bits in unknowing churches. As an old man sitting in a Northwest Washington high-rise says, "Some of the things he was saying about Harlem will always be true of humankind."
His first published poem was in the official magazine of the NAACP when he was still a boy, and it was called "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Some people think it among his very finest lyrics. The poem rolls like a river. (He wrote it on a train, going to Mexico; in a way it is a protest of everything he felt toward his oppressive father, the one human being he despised and hated the sight of.)
His biographers largely picture him as an extroverted, happy man, in itself a seeming aberration for a poet. And here, in just three lines, a haiku almost, is a haunting poem called "Suicide's Note": The calm/ Cool face of the river/ Asked me for a kiss. Langston Hughes didn't die by his own hand. He died of mysterious medical causes that have never quite fully been revealed. The upcoming biography by Faith Berry sheds some light on the mystery.
On Dec. 6, 1925, on Wardman-Park hotel stationery, Vachel Lindsay passed on some advice to a poet about to burst on the world. "Do not let any lionizers stampede you," Lindsay said. "Hide and write and study and think. I know what factions do. Beware of them. I know what lionizers do. Beware of them." The stars went out and so did the moon. he singer stopped playing and went to bed While the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.