Rivers: A Reflection on Langston Hughes
“I swear to the Lord I still can’t see why democracy means everybody but me.”
Sweet and docile, Meek, humble, and kind: Beware the day – They change their mind.”
Langston Hughes would have been 118 on February 1st.
I remember the first time I was introduced to his words. My parents decided to put me in an all black private school in third grade. When I walked into Mr. Dunbar’s class, they were reciting, in unison, one of Mr. Hughes’ poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
My self-esteem was at an all time low because of teachers and their prejudices at my previous school. But the way Mr. Dunbar had these kids shouting that poem went straight to the core of my young, bruised beautiful blackness and healed it. The thunder of Mr. Dunbar’s deep voice only added to that moment and with each word they shouted I began to dismantle the lies society was telling my young mind about the color of my skin.
“I’ve known rivers…”
I remember standing there as Mr. Dunbar came over and placed his hand on my shoulder to try and ease my new-kid-in-class nerves. As he stood towering over me, a feeling I couldn’t describe surrounded me.
“…ancient as the world and older than flow of human blood in human veins…”
I realize now what I was feeling was a sense of worth and belonging that I wasn’t getting from my white peers in my old elementary school.
When that poem ended, Mr. Dunbar’s voice boomed “I, too!” and the class began reciting Mr. Langston’s poem “I, Too.” For the first time I wasn’t the only black child in class. There was an entire classroom of students that looked like me and I let my little 3rd grade guard down as they chanted with the great fervor Mr. Dunbar demanded of his students:
“I, too, sing America.
I watched in awe but also felt lost because I had no idea why they were reciting those words, and yet, I listened and my mind, even at that young age, understood its meaning.
“I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes…”
The poem went on and came quickly to the last verse:
“Besides, They’ll see how beautiful I am–and be ashamed. I, too, am America.”
The silence filled the room as Mr. Dunbar ushered me to my seat and said “who would like to tell Audra who wrote those poems.” Someone raised their hand and I heard the words “Langston Hughes.”
Mr. Hughes gave me so much. That little girl, sad and bruised from prejudiced teachers and mean kids in her old school, became proud of her blackness. Militantly so (which is an ongoing joke in my family now).
I still know those two poems by heart to this day. I also have several of his books sitting on my shelf, which I have yet to get around to (I know, that’s kind of sad). But whether I ever read them or not, those books will remain on my shelf. Whenever racism rears its ugly head at me, and sadly that is still all too often in this day and age, I will grab one of his books and remember that beautiful moment in Mr. Dunbar’s class.
“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
When the world wants to police my body, my hair, and my every damn move. When the world tries to tell me where I do and don’t belong. When the world tries to tell me what I can and cannot be, I remember another of his poems:
“To fling my arms wide in some place of the sun, to whirl and dance till the white day is done. Then rest at cool evening beneath a tall tree while night comes on gently, dark like me–that is my dream.”
And I smear those words like a balm over my beautiful black soul and I stretch out my arms and do a little dance and whisper to the air “Thank you, Langston Hughes.”
“O, let my land be a land where Liberty is crowned with not false patriotic wreath, but opportunity is real, and life is free, equality is in the air we breathe. (There’s never been equality for me, nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–and finding only the same old stupid plan of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”