Sunday February 1 will be Langston Hughes’s birthday. He would’ve been 107 years old. My how time flies. In The Big Sea, Langston articulated the real deal about Washington’s black bourgeoisie of the 1920s. The chapter is titled “Washington Society.”
These upper class colored people consisted largely of government workers, professors and teachers, doctors, lawyers, and resident politicians. They were on the whole as unbearable and snobbish a group of people as I have ever come in contact with anywhere. They lived in comfortable homes, had fine cars, played bridge, drank Scotch, gave exclusive “formal” parties, and dressed well, but seemed to me altogether lacking in real culture, kindness, or good common sense.
When I read that in the 1980s, I was blown away. Why? Because it was true, but I had never seen it expressed print with such brazen honesty. Full-time, non-academic, working artists were freaks in D.C. at one time which is why many of them didn’t stay or couldn’t. “Get a good gov’ment job,” was the goal in life, a house, a fine car, join a respectable church, and you’re done. Nothing wrong with that, but as the song goes “Is that all there is?”
I have to say, D.C. has changed. I think Langston would like some of the changes–slam poetry nights, more theaters, and especially Busboys and Poets where poet/performance artist Holly Bass will be saluting the poet, dramatist, writer Sunday (Feb. 1) in a performance of “The Weary Blues,” the 1958 jazz/poetry collaboration between Langston Hughes and jazz composer bassist Charles Mingus. There’s a ticket $15 fee ($12 for students and seniors) so go to the website (www.busboysandpoets.com)
Langston can’t talk too much smack about D.C. He was discovered as a poet in this city while working as a busboy at what is now the Wardman Park Marriott Hotel. He slipped his “Weary Blues” poem to Russian poet Vachel Lindsay. Langston also met his BFF Zora Neale Hurston in D.C. His reason for coming to D.C. may have been to take care of his mamma, but I bet he didn’t leave the way he came in. In fact, Langston, found the blues in D.C. and you left the city a poet.
We used to read Langston Hughes poems out loud in the kitchen of my dormitory. My favorites were the Madam poems. I left campus one Saturday to go to Cleveland and visit Rowena Jelliffe for an oral history project. She and her husband Russell co-founded the Karamu House Theatre. She showed me the spot where Langston and Zora had their famous “Mule Bone” falling out. [“Mule Bone” was a play the two writers collaborated on and a dispute broke out over who would get the credit and own the rights.] Apparently, Langston’s mother got up in Zora’s face. Mrs. Jelliffe recalled Langston saying to his mother, “Rowena and I behaved like ladies.”
When I was in junior high school, I’d thumb through my sister’s copy of Black Magic, a coffee table book anthology of Black performers in music, dance, theater, film and television edited by Langston Hughes. I memorized the faces on each and every page. Black Patty, Florence Mills, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Bert Williams, Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Freddie Washington, Hazel Scott, Ira Aldridge.
So much of my exposure to African American poetry and African Americans in the arts I owe to Langston Hughes. Welcome back to D.C. Langston and Happy Birthday.