Langston Hughes – domestic pariah, international superstar



Throughout his career, Hughes was eager to mentor and promote the work of writers abroad.
Library of Congress

Jason Miller, North Carolina State University

A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun” and an uncompromising voice for social justice, Langston Hughes is heralded as one of America’s greatest poets.

It wasn’t always this way. During his career, Hughes was routinely harassed by his own government. And the nation’s literati, balking at his subversive politics, tended to overlook his work.

But the opposite was true abroad, in places like France, Nigeria and Cuba, where Hughes had legions of devoted readers who were some of the first to recognize the promise and power of the poet’s words. In my new book, “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” I trace Hughes’ budding international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.

Building a fan base

Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures.

Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.

During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by the 12-bar structures, cadences, rhymes and subject matter of blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.

Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of popular dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.

Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers – writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology “African Treasury,” which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.

In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.”

When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. Scores of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar, much in the way sports heroes are hounded by children for autographs.

By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner’s 1963 book “Black Poets of the United States” highlighted the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”

As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes ultimately galvanized scores of emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela – not the United States – that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.

Making enemies at home

Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures – in politics, in the media and in law enforcement – viewed him as a menace.

As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by his own government. Hughes had been under FBI surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Meanwhile his adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 – when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes – earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hughes’ piercing critiques of capitalism didn’t help his cause, either. Hoover would go on to wage a personal vendetta against Hughes, building a 550-page file on him that highlighted poems like “Goodbye, Christ” as evidence of his communist sympathies.

Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.

The man who was exalted by political leaders overseas, who found himself elbowing his way through throngs of adoring crowds abroad, was attacked as “un-American” by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.

Poet and author Langston Hughes speaks before the McCarthy Committee in Washington, D.C. on March 26, 1953.
AP Photo

Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again”:

    Let America be America again.
    Let it be the dream it used to be.
    Let it be the pioneer on the plain
    Seeking a home where he himself is free.

    (America never was America to me.)

That last line still resonates for many Americans – for those who have never known a golden age, nor tasted the nation’s promise of dreams, justice and equality for all.

How long, Hughes wondered in “Harlem,” would we have to wait? And what was the cost of kicking the can down the road?

  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?

Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”

Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

To me, this perfectly encapsulates Hughes’ international appeal. The poet sympathized with those who had felt the harshest wrath of American power and politics. His intended audience was never just his fellow Americans who were grappling with fear and anxiety; it was anyone who had suffered great and devastating loss – an anguish that knows no language or borders.

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Jason Miller, Professor of English, North Carolina State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus: five books to keep young people happy during lockdown – children’s author


George Rudy via Shutterstock

Mimi Thebo, University of Bristol

Stories can be mirrors that help young people express feelings about a given situation. They give children a vocabulary for what is happening. But, because of how fiction works in the brain, stories can also be windows. When we read fiction, we inhabit other bodies and feel the concerns of other people. This helps young people to develop empathy – but has another profound effect. Reading stories makes us feel experienced and increases resilience.

I’ve chosen some wonderful books that all function both as mirrors and windows for children as the world faces the effects of Coronavirus. They are beautifully written and/or illustrated and should fire young imaginations, while comforting the whole family.

The Red Tree

This is a beautiful picture book – sparse of text – with lush landscapes in Sean Tan’s magical style. The reader loses themselves in pages that are achingly evocative of yearning, loss and wonder in a kind of heady cocktail of intense emotion, boredom and stoicism.

For a child, there is always hope.
Amazon

Dark leaves fall in our character’s bedroom, but by the end, they have coalesced into a beautiful red tree.

There is space here for even a very young reader to express what they think is happening page by page. The art could stimulate imitation. I can also imagine making a little red tree trunk and branches and adding a leaf to it, day by day.

There is very little reading to be done, so a slightly older child could also “read” it to a younger one.

The Mousehole Cat

Antonia Barber sets her classic story on the Cornish coast. The narrative is about a cat who saves the day when her community is threatened. It is wordier than many picture books, but narrated by the cat in clear, beautifully written prose – it’s a pleasure to read aloud.

Moving story of bravery, sacrifice and companionship.
Amazon

Nicola Bayley’s illustrations are engaging and immersive – who wouldn’t like to go to the seaside right now? – and the characters easily inspire affection.

Touching on concepts of scarcity and sacrifice, this is a very empowering story for a young listener or reader. The smallest character in the story is the hero who saves everyone – by singing. It would be easy to live in this story for a while, going fishing from the laundry basket, practising storm singing, repeating some of the turns of phrase.

The illustrations are inspiring for young artists and could also be the basis of remembering visits to the seaside, pretend beach picnics or natural history lessons.

Comet in Moominland

A trip to Tove Jansson’s Moominland always makes everything better. Here, the family flee from an approaching comet, meeting many favourite characters on the way.

Full of adventures and narrow escapes.
Amazon

The much-beloved Moomins are eccentric hippo-like people, very accommodating of difference and otherness. That said, many of the characters have their little ways, and being accommodating isn’t always comfortable. The realism of the relationships gives even the silliest of Jansson’s stories the texture of real life.

Quirky line drawings are immensely endearing and the story, while exciting with elements of real fear, never feels as if it will end badly. The language is fun, with word play and characters’ attitudes and, again, the child is the hero. It’s not hard to draw a Moomin, and there are endless opportunities for drama. Year twos or threes can probably read it to themselves, with someone on hand for the tricky bits, but it’s fun enough to engage older children, and silly enough for littlies.

The Wee Free Men

Tiffany Aching comes from chalkland, where nobody has it easy, and everyone works hard. When a rift opens on her doorstep and her despised little brother is taken, she discovers she’s not ordinary, after all. Armed with a cast-iron frying pan, she takes on the full force of Fairyland.

A riotous out-loud read.
Amazon

This is a riotous out-loud read from the late Terry Pratchett, featuring a tribe of “pictsies” who speak in a Scottish accent that sounds a lot like the stand-up comic Billy Connolly. Tiffany’s gran has recently passed away – and the danger feels quite real – but we know that Tiff will get us through. She certainly does, battling forces of depression and self-doubt to do so – another young leader in a time of community danger. Even hardened teenagers might smile at the best bits and tweens will devour it whole. Children as young as six or seven can follow along.

The narrative is a role-play bonanza and there are opportunities to investigate British folklore, identities in the United Kingdom and gender roles. Illustrations in the text might inspire art and mapping the settings would be an interesting exercise. Further adventures of some of the characters could be written, and geography lessons about chalk grassland would be easy to work in.

The Book Thief

For resilient older children and teens, Markus Zusac’s story is set in a time of many lives lost – Germany during the second world war – and narrated by Death. It is gorgeously written (an international bestseller, adapted for film) and, while the subject matter is difficult, the narrative pulses with life and hope.

Navigating trauma and hard times.
Amazon

For a young person engaged with current events, questioning authority and impatient of parental efforts to shield them from the grimmer elements of our current reality, this book could be a lifeline.

Liesel Meminger is illiterate when the story begins, but takes a book that has been dropped at her brother’s graveside. As she begins to read and to leave childhood behind, she steals many more books. Love, death and the importance of even futile actions inform the story of Liesel’s coming of age and provide ways of thinking about what it means to be human.

This could be read together silently, perhaps taking chapters in turn, rationed out as a treat for discussion or not. It’s a natural accompaniment to history lessons, geography, or some online German instruction and watching the film could lead to a discussion of adaptation. But perhaps you could just leave a copy of it out for anyone who needs it to find and make their own.

Many of these titles are available electronically, but local bookshops are delivering and posting orders. After all, there’s nothing more comforting than snuggling behind the protective embrace of an open book.The Conversation

Mimi Thebo, Reader in Creative Writing, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Love and a happy ending: romance fiction to help you through a coronavirus lockdown



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Jodi McAlister, Deakin University

Romance fiction has two defining features.

First, it centres on a love story. Secondly, it always ends well.

Our protagonists end up together (if not forever, then at least for the foreseeable future) and this makes the world around them a little bit better, too.

In times of uncertainty, upheaval and chaos, readers often turn to romance fiction: during the second world war, Mills & Boon was able to maintain its paper ration by arguing its books were good for the morale of working women.

The books the company was producing in this period were not about the war. Most never even mentioned it. Instead, they provided an escape for readers to a world where they could be assured everything was going to turn out all right: love would conquer all, villains would be defeated, and lovers would always find their way back to each other.




Read more:
How to learn about love from Mills & Boon novels


Today, romance publishing is a billion-dollar industry, with thousands of novels published each year. It covers a wide range of subgenres: from historical to contemporary, paranormal to sci-fi, from novels where the only physical interaction between the protagonists is a kiss, to erotic romance where sex is fundamental to the story.

Rule 34 of the internet states if you can think of something, then there’s porn of it. The same, I would argue, is true for romance fiction.

But where to begin? As both a scholar of romance fiction and an avid reader of it, I’ve put together this list of five great reads for people who might want to start exploring the genre.

If you like Jane Austen, try…

The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker

The Austen Playbook is the fourth book in Parker’s London Celebrities series (all only loosely connected, so you can jump in anywhere).

Heroine Freddy is an actress from an esteemed West End family, trying to balance her desire to perform in musicals and crowd-pleasers over her family pushing her towards serious drama. Hero Griff is a theatre critic and his family estate is playing host to a wacky live-action Jane Austen murder mystery, in which Freddy is playing Lydia.

Parker is a gifted author, and this book is a light, bright and sparkling delight.

If you like (or hate!) dating apps, try…

The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai

Many people now find partners on dating apps, but these apps are often not exactly friendly for women.

Rai addresses that to great effect in The Right Swipe, where heroine Rhiannon is the designer of a dating app designed specifically for women.

She meets hero Samson the first time as a result of swiping right, and then the second time, months later, when he’s teamed up with one of her primary business rivals…

If you’re fascinated by psychology, try …

The Love Experiment by Ainslie Paton

Paton is one of Australia’s smartest and most underrated romance authors. The Love Experiment draws on the 36 questions developed by psychologist Arthur Aron to explore whether intimacy could be generated or intensified between two people if they exchanged increasingly personal information.

The 36 questions were popularised in Mandy Len Catron’s 2015 New York Times essay To Fall In Love With Anyone, Do This. Here, journalist protagonists Derelie and Jackson undertake the experiment in Paton’s book, only to find love is more complex than 36 questions.

If you think we need to save the oceans, try…

Project Saving Noah by Six de los Reyes

This book emerges from RomanceClass, a fascinating community of English-language romance writers and readers based in the Philippines. One of their distinctive features is their collaboration with local actors in Manila to perform excerpts from the books (including Project Saving Noah) at their regular gatherings. I was privileged enough to attend one of these last year.

Protagonists Noah and Lise are graduate students in oceanography competing for one spot on a research project, while simultaneously being forced to work together. Their romance is conflicted and compelling, but what stands out about this book is the vividness with which their environment – natural and academic – is constructed.

If you like your protagonists to have some maturity, try…

Mrs Martin’s Incomparable Adventure by Courtney Milan

If Milan’s name sounds familiar, it’s because she was at the centre of the recent scandal engulfing the Romance Writers of America, which penetrated through romance’s usual cultural invisibility.

When she’s not standing up against systemic racism, Milan writes excellent, mostly historical, romance. Mrs Martin is a delightful historical romp, as our two heroines Bertrice (aged 73) and Violetta (aged 69) team up against Violetta’s terrible nephew, and fall in love and eat cheese on toast together.The Conversation

Jodi McAlister, Lecturer in Writing, Literature and Culture, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.