A hundred years ago, a teenager is riding on a train to Mexico. He’s just left his high school in Ohio. He’s Black. Most of the school was white. When he was in Junior High, the class was asked to elect a class poet. The teacher suggested it should be someone who understood rhythm, and so they elected him. Ah huh…but then he’s also done well at school and now his teachers are suggesting college. That poetry that he had been elected to is sticking with him, literature too. The first successful Black American poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar had been from Ohio. He thinks “This is possible.”
The teenager is traveling alone on the train. He’s already accustomed to that. If his poppa was a rolling stone, then his mom was moss. They’d split up before he entered school. His father moved far about, following his business interests, and he was the one in Mexico the young man was traveling to. His mother had left him when he was a young child in the care of his grandmother, and then the grandmother died just as he became a teenager. After that, he and his mother tried to reconnect. Mother. Son. Perhaps the deepest tie there is. It didn’t quite work.
The train crosses the Mississippi, the indispensable dividing river of America. He watches out the train window. A train line is a story someone wrote. A river is history — it’s there even if you don’t know it is. But the young man knows more history than many young men knew then, or that many know now.* In particular, he knew that Abe Lincoln, scuffling for work as a young man, had manned a freight-loaded flatboat down that river to New Orleans in 1828. His freight was goods in crates, and New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi was a commercial center for goods. While there young Lincoln sees another market, another type of goods: Black people being bought and sold as livestock.
How ignorant was the young Lincoln of slavery? There were a small number of slaves in the Illinois County Lincoln was traveling from.** The slave market in New Orleans was Americas largest. Perhaps slavery was mostly a story someone told Lincoln before that.
Back in 1920, our Black teenager on the train pulls out the handiest scrap of paper he can find, a letter from his father. On the bare places of that paper, outside his father’s words, he composes today’s poem. He’s going to Mexico City to spend some time with his father and to ask him if he’ll help pay for college so he can study literature.
They spend a summer together in Mexico. Father and son. So often there’s a deep tie between such, but in this case it didn’t quite work. In the end this was the deal they negotiated: yes, he’d help his son with college — but no, he had to study something useful: engineering.***
The young man tries to hold up this agreement. He enters Columbia University in New York City to, yes, study engineering. It doesn’t work. The young man drops out of college and begins working as a bus-boy, but he’s writing poems, and in June of 1921 W.E.B. DuBois’ The Crisis magazine publishes today’s poem, the one he wrote on the back of his father’s letter on the train: “A Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In 1925 it also appears in The New Negro anthology which I’m using as a theme here this month. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.
Our young man was Langston Hughes. Today’s post is a story based on the little I know about how he came to become a writer. Stories are something we have to write, we engineer them, we build them, lay them out. But, history? History is a river. It’s there whether you know it or not. Surely it goes on, whether you know it or not. Shouldn’t you know it? Shouldn’t I know it? Shouldn’t we know it?
Full circle. After Hughes died in 1967 his ashes were interred in the the middle of this mosaic depicting “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on the floor the lobby of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York.
The player gadget to hear my performance of Langston Hughes’ “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” is below. If you don’t see the gadget, not to worry. This highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*Indeed, somehow our teenager knew more about Black history than many would have in his time, and the chance that he learned much if any of this in school was low. Forty some years later when I was a teenager, I asked my Freshman Western Civ. teacher an innocent question: “Were the ancient Egyptians Black?” He seemed startled at the question. Hughes was hip to that question in 1920.
However interrupted and strained Langston Hughes’ relationship with his family was, he must have been pointed in some directions by them. A chief source was likely that grandmother who took care of him until she died when Langston was 13. Did she know stories or history? Well, Hughes’ grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who died during the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid just before the Civil War.
**This post says 13 enslaved people of the population of nearly 13,000 in Lincoln’s Sangamom County.
***I’ve also read that part of Langston Hughes’ father’s issues with his son was that he thought Langston effeminate, and Engineering (than, as still now) was a mostly male field.