Returning to the poems published in the 1926 issue of Fire!! magazine which proclaimed it was “Devoted to Younger Negro Artists,” we get this simple seeming, yet mysterious poem by one of Fire’s most famous contributors and organizers: the then 25-year-old Langston Hughes.
“Railroad Avenue” looks like a simple free-verse street-scene vignette. Here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to follow along. Yet the more I looked to understand it, the deeper the mystery of it became.
Here are a few things that seem quite clear: it’s evening. There’s a street, likely named by the poem’s title. A few things are seen or heard: lights in two businesses, a boxcar, a record player, a player piano, a boy and a girl, laughter. Largely unremarkable things, so there’s some specific character given to them.
The record player is a Victrola, a short-lived brand from the early 20th century — for example, the ones with the big conical horn as in the original RCA Victor logo. The businesses are a pool hall and a restaurant serving fish. The boy is at leisure, comfortable. The girl has a dark face that is powdered.* In what may be internal monologue the poem’s narrator gives us the winning number in the day’s policy game.**
So, are we clearly visualizing the place being described? At first I thought I could. I figured without evidence that this was a crowded urban nightlife street, the two other people only examples of many, the sounds and things part of what could have been a larger catalog. Is that reading possible? Two things mentioned that are likely heard not seen: the player piano (reasonably loud) and the Victrola, which would not be. Victrolas were not electric record players. The records turned via clockwork, the sound was produced acoustically from the grooves in the records. So, it’s not blaring out a window over robust street sounds. If the statement on the winning daily number 942 is audible rather than the interior thoughts of our narrator, it too would likely be at a conversational level (given no indication that the speaker/thinker won).
And then there’s that boxcar. Mentioned twice, Hughes really wants us to see that there’s this boxcar there, yet says nothing about it other than also saying twice that it’s forgotten. What’s that mean? A boxcar is a freight train car. This is not an urban light rail or passenger train line being invoked. Who forgets a boxcar? Is it just one piece of rolling stock left off somewhere as a spare or scrap? While the poem doesn’t say this, I began seeing it as part of a train on a grade-level street crossing, with the boxcar’s location blocking the road, a location so that it has to be mentioned, can’t be ignored. Did Hughes see this clearly in his mind and forgot to make it plain in his poem, or am I imagining things?
This vision invoked in me of a small town to small city location where the freight train line runs on grade-level, not on bridges over the roads or in tunnels under them, let me begin to see this as a much sleepier street. This isn’t the busy streetlight and neon Harlem of Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance. The dusk is “dark,” the street quiet enough to hear things distinctly as the evening begins. As the poem reaches a crescendo portion, it’s laughter we hear. It’s “sudden,” indicating that it startles the relative quiet and is not muffled by it. Hughes metaphorically amplifies that laughter with repetition — stating that this laughter with its transport from the ordinary and unenergetic street is able to shake the shop lights and move billiard balls.
This is a poem published by a 25-year-old, but I get a sense this may well be a memory of an even more youthful time with daylight ending, with sounds and a scattered glow from remembered lit windows. Dusk is a marking time for many young people, between the era when it says “time to go home” spanning to the age of “time to first go out and explore your nighttime world of romance and adult recreation.” I wondered, would the poem have more context if I knew where the poem’s titular Railroad Avenue is? America has lots of Railroad Avenues and streets, so the name alone tells us little, other than this isn’t a boxcar dropped off miles from a rail line.
A Google Streetview showing the intersection of a main Joplin MO street now renamed for Langston Hughes with Railroad Ave. Google’s camera vehicles didn’t drive & record down the gravel path that is Railroad Avenue right beside the train tracks.
I spent half a day trying to figure out where such a street might be in the places the young Hughes was known to have lived. I’ll summarize the candidates as briefly as I can. He was born in Joplin Missouri, and there’s a very good Railroad Avenue there, with everything you might want for this less-populated scene — though the Afro-American population at the time Hughes’ family lived there was low. But Hughes and his parents left Joplin when Hughes was around 1-2 years old, and there’s nothing I could find saying anyone went back. And was Joplin even big enough and ethnic enough for a numbers game? Hughes spent his grade-school years in Lawrence Kansas being raised by his grandmother. Yes, there were some Black neighborhoods,*** but no likely Railroad Avenue. He spent time at Howard University in Washington D. C. There’s a Railroad Avenue in that city, but it’s far from Howard, and seems to be (and likely was) a non-descript industrial area. Afro-American Howard students might spend evenings on U street circa 1920, but like Harlem in that era, it’d be lit and busy, and no likely boxcars there. Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, and once more I thought I might have a chance. Not as urban circa 1920 — but then no Railroad Avenue, not even a railroad line for more than 15 miles that I could find. And even if he’s a famous figure from the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes’ Harlem is as unlikely for a sleepy dark dusk with a grade-level railroad line as Washington D. C.
Is Railroad Avenue just something Hughes made up? Is it someone else’s story, something he absorbed from a friend, or his mother or grandmother? Did he go back and visit his birthplace Joplin before 1926 and observe a relaxed scene somewhere on that gravel-surface Railroad Avenue? I’ll probably never know.
But what’s up with that boxcar? Why is it so important, and so specifically forgotten? As a short, Modernist free verse poem, we can think: “So much depends/upon/the boxcar/serenaded by a/Victrola/beside a purple/powdered girl.” One theory: the boxcar is a plausible hobo-ride escape out of the town, but our narrator either doesn’t want to leave, or doesn’t know if the train-car is soon going his way. Within a year Hughes published another poem “Homesick Blues” written more in Southern Black dialect about someone looking to hobo back south.**** Another theory? If, as I imagined without direct evidence, the train has stopped and the boxcar is blocking the road, it’s a symbol of systematic blockage of the people in the scene. Whoever owns/controls the boxcar doesn’t even need to care about this (it’s “forgotten”) — and meanwhile the laughter of the folks in the scene mitigates their lives as they deal with this unfair, indifferent, hindrance.
I’ll conclude by admitting I composed the music and performed Langston Hughes’ “Railroad Avenue” without knowing exactly what the poem was about. I did have my supposed internal vision while doing so: it’s a small non-urban place, like some in Hughes’ youth. A boy or young man is watching the grownups, thinking without even thinking much, about where he might go, what he might do as he grows up. He knows somehow this, and he, will go away — but this evening he’s there. That personal, practical, vision of mine is, as Hughes has it, “Neither truth nor lie.”
You can hear my performance with the player below, or lacking that, with this highlighted link.
*This line is the only one that specifically calls out the racial caste situation in the poem. Powders to lighten the skin tone of darker skinned Afro-Americans were a common cosmetic in Hughes’ time.
**Number or Policy lottery games were present in cities by the time of this poem. The illegal gambling game was usually a daily low-cost bet, winners determined by some coincidental trio of numbers that could be found published daily in newspapers. While associated with Afro-Americans, it was played by other ethnicities too. I don’t know much about its plausible presence in smaller cities and towns before 1926, though Wikipedia says such games go back to Civil War times.
***During the mid-19th century violence of the “Bloody Kansas” struggle to decide if Kansas would be admitted to the union as a slave or free state the pro-slavery forces sacked and destroyed Lawrence more than once. John Brown became a leader of guerilla anti-slavery forces in Kansas, and Hughes’ grandmother, who largely raised him, had a first husband who was killed with Brown at Harper’s Ferry.
****Example that Hughes was comfortable writing either as a collective noun or in the voices of personas.