Langston Hughes, Teenaged Poet

Last year, I celebrated Black History Month by writing about The Brownies’ Book, the groundbreaking magazine for African American children that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Sadly, the magazine failed to reach its subscription goals and, after a two-year run, ceased publication in December 1921. While it lasted, The Brownies’ Book not only provided young African Americans with a chance to read about young people like themselves but also gave them a chance to see themselves in print by sending in letters to the editor, photos, poems, or stories. Aspiring writer Langston Hughes did all of these things.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

Hughes, who graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1920,* made his first appearance in the pages of The Brownies’ Book in July of that year. Along with his graduation photo, he submitted a letter saying, “It might interest you to know that I have been elected Class Poet and have also written the Class Song for the graduates. I am, too, the editor of The Annual and am the first Negro to hold the position since 1901, when it was held by the son of Charles W. Chestnut. I thank you for the honor of having my picture in your publication.”**

After his graduation, Hughes went to Toluca, Mexico, to live with his father, who had separated from his mother shortly after he was born. Hughes was hoping to convince him to pay for his education at Columbia University. There was tension between the two, in part because Hughes’ father disliked what he thought of as his son’s sissified demeanor.*** Hughes’ father eventually agreed to pay his tuition, but only if he studied engineering instead of literature, which Hughes agreed to do.

In September 1920, Hughes submitted three poems to The Brownies’ Book. Jessie Redmon Faust, the magazine’s literary editor, wrote to Hughes accepting one of the poems, “The Fairies,” which she considered “very charming.” She asked if he had any stories about Mexico, or if he knew of any Mexican games. Hughes sent her an article about Mexican games, along with some more poems. “Fairies” and another poem, “Winter Sweetness,” appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book, along with the article.

You can judge the poems for yourself, but, as something of a connoisseur, I have to say that “The Fairies” is not top-tier ca. 1920 fairy poetry. It is, however, the kind of writing that gets you published in The Brownies’ Book, which is what Hughes was aiming for.

On to the games! In one of them, called Lady White, a girl is chosen as Lady White and another as her suitor, Don Philip. The other players circle her in Ring Around the Rosie formation and sing a song about how Lady White’s suitor must break a window to behold Lady White. Some more singing goes on, and then Don Philip tries to break through the circle to get inside. Curious about this Freudian game, I Googled “Doña Blanca” and found this video from a children’s program, which I beg you to drop everything this instant to watch. In this version, the children don’t try to ram through each other’s enlaced hands, so it’s safer but makes for kind of a lame game.****

Toluca, ca. 1920, Hugo Brehme (mexicoenfotos.com)

More publications soon followed. The March 1921 issue included another poem, and an article about the Mexican city of Toluca appeared in April. In the article, Hughes recounts interesting details of daily life, such as, “On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says ‘I’m dying,’ you must give him a gift unless you have said ‘I’m dying’ first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present.”***** Also, Hughes notes that people’s houses have hardly any furniture except chairs, 27 in the case of one of his friends. “Perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out,” he philosophizes.

In July 1921, there was a play by Hughes about a young couple who earn a gold piece selling pigs at the market, fantasize about what they can buy with it, and end up giving it to a poor old woman with a blind son. This is as close to hack work as Hughes gets.

The November 1921 issue featured a poem by Hughes, “Thanksgiving Time,” as well as a story, “Those Who Have No Turkey,” about a country girl who, visiting her snooty city cousins on Thanksgiving, is shocked to hear from a newsboy that his family has no turkey to eat and invites him and his family to dinner at her relatives’ house. It’s an engagingly told story, although Hughes spends too much time on buildup and rushes through the dinner in two paragraphs.

Hughes’ account of accompanying a high school class on a hike up Xinantecatl, an inactive volcano near Toluca, appeared in the December 1921 issue, the magazine’s last. Again, there are lots of interesting details, like the list of items he was told to bring along: “first, plenty of lunch; then, two warm blankets because we were to sleep in the open mountains; my camera for pictures; a bottle for water; a small amount of cognac or some other liquor in case of mountain sickness in the high altitude; and a pistol. ‘But above all,’ they said, ‘take onions!” The reason, it turned out, was that smelling them helps with altitude sickness. Indeed, Hughes reports, the onions turned out to be a lifesaver in the thin mountain air.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, December 1921

Hughes’ work in The Brownies’ Book shows us an aspiring writer who knows his audience and has a flair for words, but there’s no evidence of budding genius. There’s more to the story, though. Early in 1921, he sent Faust a poem that he had written in July 1920, after crossing the Mississippi on his way to Mexico. She told him that she would publish it–not in The Brownies’ Book but in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for adults.

The poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis and became Hughes’ signature poem.******

The career of one of America’s greatest poets had begun.*******

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*Hughes believed throughout his life that he was born on February 1, 1902, but, as this fascinating 2018 New York Times article recounts, a writer and poet researching his own family history came across several 1901 references to the infant Langston Hughes in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American newspaper. February 1, 1901, is now widely accepted as his date of birth. So “Teenaged Poet” is a bit of a stretch–but he thought he was a teenager in 1921.

Charles W. Chesnutt, ca. 1898 (Cleveland Public Library)

**Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a well-known writer and political activist. His daughter Helen Chesnutt was Hughes’ Latin teacher and a figure of inspiration to him. Chesnutt’s Wikipedia entry says that he had four daughters but does not mention a son.

***Information about Hughes’ personal relationships is scant, but many scholars now believe that he was gay.

****We used to play a version of the ramming through the hands game when I was a kid, which, like many aspects of 1960s-1970s childhood, is horrifying in retrospect.

*****I lived in Mexico City in the 1980s, but sadly never observed this particular Day of the Dead tradition in practice. I suppose it would have been impracticable in a city with a population of 20 million.

******Unfortunately in retrospect, The Crisis often used swastikas in the magazine’s graphic design. The symbol had no political significance at the time, of course.

*******Blogger/composer Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project has been focusing on Hughes’ early work this month. His post about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is here.

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