Remembering Langston Hughes: The ‘People’s Poet’
Kansas symposium draws stellar mix of scholars, activists and artists to honor Hughes’ centennial.
By Robin V. Smiles
More than 500 scholars, artists, educators, entertainers and activists from across the nation and around the globe gathered at the University of Kansas in Lawrence earlier this month to remember the art, life and legacy of Langston Hughes (1902-1967).
The four-day, international and intergenerational symposium, sponsored by the University of Kansas and the Langston Hughes Society, featured a variety of panel discussions and performances celebrating Hughes’ 100th birthday and the vast influence of his prolific repertoire of poems, novels, plays, autobiographies, essays, translations, short stories and more.
In many of the sessions, Hughes was remembered as “the people’s poet,” committed to the “common people” and dedicated to making sure the voices of the African American masses were heard. Several of the symposium participants knew Hughes personally and recalled his love of life and literature.
Author Paule Marshall reminisced about the three weeks she spent with Hughes on a European book tour in the early 1960s. As a young writer, just having published her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall recalled the excitement and gratitude she felt when she received a letter asking her to join Hughes on the tour. The tour marked the beginning of a rich friendship between the two writers, with Marshall being forever indebted to Hughes’ guidance and support.
Noted author and activist Amiri Baraka also recalled his personal knowledge of Hughes’ commitment to young writers. After Baraka (then using the name LeRoi Jones) published his first poem, he received a postcard from Hughes in the veteran writer’s “signature green ink,” welcoming him into the community of African American literary voices.
In the spirit of Hughes, the symposium reached outside the university’s walls and into the Lawrence community, where Hughes spent much of his childhood living with his grandmother, Mary Langston. Several events were free and open to the public, including a pre-symposium unveiling of the Langston Hughes U.S. postage stamp and reading by author Alice Walker, a dramatic performance by actor Danny Glover, and poetry readings, featuring Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ishmael Reed and a number of other artists.
A half-day teaching workshop led by Hughes scholars Dr. Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, professor of English at Spelman College, and Dr. William W. Cook, professor of English and African American studies at Dartmouth College, introduced area teachers on all levels to strategies and methods for bringing Hughes into their classrooms.
“The whole town is swept up in Hughes-mania. And I think it is absolutely thrilling,” said University of Kansas professor Dr. William Tuttle during his welcoming remarks.
KU junior Latisha Merritt was most impressed with the symposium’s diversity of presenters and participants as well as the “realness” of the conference. For Merritt, the symposium events helped her understand Hughes’ influence and interpret his works.
“You can say (Hughes) was for the people, but to see the actual evidence is important,” Merritt says. She also discussed the significance of the symposium being held on the KU campus, a campus with only 600 minority students, she says. The event underscored the fact that “everybody should know him,” Merritt says.
With a U.S. postage stamp and a conference on the grand scale of the one at KU, one would think that Hughes and his works have always attracted such recognition. Yet, according to Hughes biographer Dr. Arnold Rampersad, there was a time when Hughes’ work was not being talked about or being respected in the academy. It has just been in the past few decades that an increased interest in Hughes has emerged, says Rampersad, the Sara Hart Kimball professor in the humanities at Stanford University. Much of Hughes’ earlier dismissal can be traced to the criticism he received from his New Negro contemporaries, who criticized him for privileging the folk and the vernacular in his works.
Rampersad also attributes the lack of Hughes scholarship and critical attention to the fact that, until very recently, most of Hughes’ works were out of print. Yet, with the recent publication of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes by the University of Missouri Press, a feat that Rampersad deems a “milestone,” that can no longer stand as an excuse.
Several other universities are celebrating Hughes’ centennial with conferences and various events, including Missouri Southern State College in Hughes’ birthplace, Joplin, Mo.; Yale University and Cleveland State University.
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