Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Happy Black History Month & Langston Hughes Day (Poems)

Today begins Black History Month, which is celebrated throughout the month of February in both the United States and Canada (in UK it occurs in October). It became an official US celebration in 1976, though its origins date back to scholar-activist Carter G. Woodson's establishment of Negro History Week in 1926. It is also, happily, Langston Hughes's birthday (1902-1967). I have posted more than a few Langston Hughes poems on this blog, and relish any opportunity to do so.

A draft of Hughes's "Old Walt"
Here are of two of his most famous poems, from Montage of a Dream Deferred (Henry Holt, 1951), both in direct conversation with each other. Note the light, jazzy, celebratory but ultimately critical tone of the first contrasting with the graver and more somber tone of the second, which I had to memorize and recite as a child (ah, the 1970s!). Both also might be read metonymically in relation to African America as it was in his day, and our own.


Good morning, daddy!
I was born here, he said.
watched Harlem grow
until colored folks spread
from river to river
across the middle of Manhattan
out of Penn Station
dark tenth of a nation,
planes from Puerto Rico,
and holds of boats, chico,
up from Cuba Haiti Jamaica,
in buses marked New York
from Georgia Florida Louisiana
to Harlem Brooklyn the Bronx
but most of all to Harlem
dusky sash acros Manhattan
I've seen them come dark
out of Penn Station--
but the trains are late.
The gates open--
Yet there're bars
at each gate.
What happens
to a dream deferred?
Daddy, ain't you heard?


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?

Both poems © Copyright, Estate of Langston Hughes, 1951, 2011. All rights reserved.

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