Mark Nowak’s post on Harriet, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of…”: On Wisconsin, Michigan, and the most famous question in the USA,” which is well worth reading in its own right, makes reference to the essay by Langston Hughes that I’ve used in the title to this post. Published in 1947, “My Adventures as a Social Poet” was Hughes’ answer to the question, “Why do you write ‘social’ [what we would today call political] poems?” I don’t know if anyone asked him this question directly, but his answer is well worth thinking about.
“Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow, must lead a very quite life,” he begins. “Seldom, I imagine does their poetry get them into difficulties.” Then he goes on:
Unfortunately, having been born poor–and also colored–in Missouri, I was stuck in the mud from the beginning. Try as I might to float off into the clouds, poverty and Jim Crow would grab me by the heels, and right on earth I would land. A third floor furnished room is the nearest thing I have ever had to an ivory tower.
This experience, he explains, left him little choice but to write “social” poems. Not to do so would have been to deny his own life experience. Admitting that his “adventures as a social poet are mild indeed compared to the body-breaking…experiences” of poets in other parts of the world, Hughes goes on to relate his own experiences in the US, which include being told by a Black minister in a Black church in Atlantic City not to read any blues from his pulpit, the loss of the patronage of the woman who sponsored his writing after he finished college, being threatened by the people of a southern university town because of one of his poems and more. It’s worth remembering just how volatile an issue race was in Hughes’ day and how easily poems like this one, written in protest of Scottsboro case, might have caused an actual riot.
Christ in Alabama
Christ is a Nigger,
Beaten and black–
O, bare your back.
Mary is His Mother–
Mammy of the South.
Silence your mouth.
God’s His Father–
White Master above,
Grant us your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth:
On the cross of the South.
The entire essay is really worth reading. It’s a reminder not just of a time in American history that is too easily forgotten these days, but of what it was like to try to live your life during that time. Hughes was a remarkable poet, and for people who know him now only through the work of his that has been anthologized–where it is almost never presented in its full political context–should also know that the stakes for him in writing those poems were much higher than whether or not he would ever be anthologized.
I will end with the same passage that Mark Nowak quoted in the post I linked to above:
I have never known the police of any country to show an interest in lyric poetry as such. But when poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody [always] tells the police.
Cross posted on It’s All Connected.