Walter Rhett

“Theme For English B”

In Living on August 24, 2010 at 12:46 pm
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Thinking about Langston today.

Langston Hughes was a poet who traveled the world. He who once motored by bus from Russia through Tajikistan to Turkmenistan to Tashkent and Samarkand and then to China; all of this after the film company he signed on with went broke and left him stranded outside of Moscow. His travelogue of the journey, “I Wonder As I Wander,” has him making friends in places where he couldn’t speak a word of the language and seeing sites whose history and importance in ancient times was well beyond his means but not beyond his understanding. His first impressions allot to us the awe and innocence of being in ancient towns where Alexander the Great journeyed or the great caravans of the Silk Road traveled in the world’s greatest period of security and open trade, a time when trade and culture flourished, connecting Beijing and Shanghai to Istanbul and Cairo, and to Paris and Cape Town and Nairobi.

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Born in Joplin, MS, raised in Topeka, KS, graduating high school in Cleveland, OH, Langston’s mother’s first husband fought and died with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry; a grand uncle was Virginia’s first African-American member of Congress during reconstruction. Two of his great-grand fathers were white (Scot and Jewish). Before graduating from Lincoln University in PA, he worked as a bus boy in DC, where he left copies of his poems under the plate of poet Vachel Lindsay who become one of his benefactors.

His broken heart suffered in Mexico sent him spiraling into emotional collapse, led him to Cuba and Haiti, but mostly he lived in Harlem, in New York City, where he wrote of life of regular folk seen in the churches and avenues, bars and apartments and rented rooms of Seventh Avenue and St. Nicholas. He is in the wedding picture of one black America’s greatest society weddings, the marriage of intellectual giant W.E.B. DuBois’ daughter Yolande to the Yale educated poet Countee Cullen.

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With words that twinkled and splashed and colored like paint, Langston Hughes captured the gay, Christmas-lighted life of the autumns and summers of urban folk who kept their country wisdom. They believed the main attitude one should hold toward life was joy, spiced with lots of laughs and plenty of hard work stirred with tenderness and hope. He marked the tough assignments for the poor and working poor of the first half of the twentieth century, but captured from the margins the fine details of their sorrows and triumphs in his stories and poems. They pulled for the Dodgers, shouted on Sunday, loved all week and had their scotches neat.

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As I post, today is day for primary elections in several states; it’s the day 334 of this remarkable year, in the midst of Dr. Laura, Shirley Sherrod, and Imam Rauf; in the rush of death panels and million dollar tax cuts some claim we must endure because the economy is too fragile for them to end. It’s a year moving fast through the slow ooze of oil as thick as tar floating up on the shores in the world’s most important wetlands, in the resistance in the Amazon to international mining where soldiers sent to subdue the natives are killed by poison-tipped arrows; in China’s purchase of Volvo, GM’s bail-out, Goldman’s money mystic, Sharron Angle’s shrill call during her election campaign for Congress that those elected serve false gods and worship idols (of course she who has sanitized her website will no doubt clean the well). In the middle of thinking about second amendment remedies and dominatrix gay strip clubs visited by Republican Eagles, not to mention the recall of half a billion eggs when there was nothing wrong with the chickens, the lost of helium (Congress voted to sell off our stores!) and the ice caps melting (but like Obama’s Christianity, many believe it’s a fiction), I am thinking of Langston’s poem, “Theme for English B.”

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colore
d student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator

up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That’s American.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.

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Written in 1949. It is taught and studied today in English classes in Morocco and China, and elicits meaningful comments on the web from Bermuda, Lebanon, Grenada, and Israel, and is used by the University of Chicago as a reading passage for its graduate admissions essay. I want my blog to travel like his poems.

I once heard “Theme for English B” recited on stage in Central Park under a hot summer sky on an indigo night in a listening crowd where I knew only the poem. I’m remembering my delight when my daughter told me she organized the Kwanza celebration for the New York Library branch where Langston Hughes spent many afternoons, reading, reading to children, and writing poems. I never met him, but his was the first hardback book I brought at 16, a collection of short stories I read for years. I did meet Cyprian Rowe, a Georgia-born Roman Catholic poet (who headed the National Office of Black Catholics) who knew him well with whom we celebrated one of Langston’s birthdays.

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I am remembering Langston because he approached issues and problems, differences and deficiencies with the joy of common sense. His work never yelled or sliced the truth into half measures, but it was never bombastic, in-your-face prevaricating, and no matter how dark the situation, always had an embedded sense of humor I learned to love.

I am remembering Langston because his writing spoke from his heart. It spoke with all of the complex feelings he allowed himself to feel. His work was honest and rich. It was open and allowed you to laugh at its short comings. His work left room for those who could not see their own folly or who pretended to perfection, or thought living was a battle won by knocking others down or who valued only their own views. He, in his writings, bestowed his humanity upon them. (see his poems, “Madam to You.”)

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I’m thinking about Langston because he was a writer he who had the good sense to keep out of his own way. His sentences were clean, never loaded; they were aimed at the reader and presented a situation, served like a favorite dessert, defused of warning, gloom, harm, hate, defense, or haughty high mindedness. He used his craft was to give you the gift of the situation in a way that you could laugh and not worry, in a way that you were stronger, more alive, and wiser for having read what he served.

I loved Langston because he taught me everyday things matter. He taught me how to share. And how precious the gifts of words can be. He taught me wit meant having a good ear and eye. He taught me that to honor the word was to cherish the reader, and how to present a gift that was made from parts of us all, whether we like it or not.

You’ll have to grade me, but that’s my blog on “Theme for English B.”

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Thanks for reading! /wr. Please stir the Perlo, leave a comment.

Images from the top: a young Langston Hughes; Langston older; Yolande DuBois and bridemaids, 1927; James Vander Zee photo–one of the most famous 1920s photos by one of Harlem’s most celebrated photographers; “Graduation” (1949) by Harlem photographer Roy Carava who collaborated with Langston on a book, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life;” a Vander Zee wedding photo, 1926; next 2 photos are well known images by James Vander Zee; Langston’s most famous poem is “Mother to Son,”
All images and quotes; fair use.



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