We could learn from the blues/of Langston Hughes

The poet Langston Hughes was both of and ahead of his time. In Twitter-friendly, succinct verses, he exposed injustice and the plight of the downtrodden. His work connects us to other times and ways of thinking.

Jody McIntyre
27 November 2013

Langston Hughes in 1943. Credit: Wikipedia, Gordon Parks

I wish the rent
Was Heaven sent.
from 'Little lyric (of great importance)'

Could any other form so swiftly summarise the worries and sufferings of so large a portion of humanity? In barely two lines, the poet Langston Hughes told it how it was, and how it still is.

Poets like Hughes are social and political commentators, telling stories in a non-linear fashion. And if poetry as a whole is also about self-development, reflection and communication, it can connect us to other times and other ways of thinking. In the UK media in recent weeks, there have been a spate of arguments opposing Tory narratives about the need for welfare cuts and intelligence secrecy. Do we not appreciate our luck at living in this liberal democracy, the government says. Don’t we realise that certain measures are needed to protect our security?

Even when finding himself in a position of relative financial privilege compared to his younger years, Hughes was not convinced by these kinds of arguments. Knowing that not everybody enjoyed the same freedoms as others, when it came to his poetry, he always spoke for the truly oppressed, downtrodden and frustrated. In ‘Ennui’, he sums up their struggle in a matter of seven words:

It’s such a
Being always

At the time, Hughes was sometimes criticised on the grounds that he highlighted the flaws in black peoples lives. Yet he wrote the story of the ordinary person not because he deemed it simpler to do so, but because he felt that it was more truthful. Unlike politicians, philosophers and scientists, Hughes broke the linguistic mould; not only did he decry injustice, but he spoke in the same language as poor people. Would an academic have dared to compose the lyrical stream of ‘Harlem Sweeties’?

All those sweet colours
Flavour Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa,
Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar,
A chocolate treat.

As Bonnie Greer highlights in her Value of Contradiction biography, Hughes was also a man of contradictions, at one point voluntarily appearing before the infamous McCarthyite ‘House of Un-American Activities Committee’. Nevertheless, his boldness and bravery shine through much of his poetry. Today in the UK, energy and rent bills are increasing, whilst wages stay the same. Hughes wasn’t in the mood for discussion when it came to exploitative practices: now, it is energy companies; then, it was the landlord. In the ‘Ballad of the Landlord’, he announces:

What, you gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on – till you get through.
You ain’t gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

These are the voices that some pretend aren’t really there, singing tunes with fingers in their ears as a storm brews underneath. Take, for example, Hughes’ ‘Madam Alberta K. Johnson’; a character graced with a whole series of poems. In one, entitled ‘Madam and the Rent Man’, the rent man becomes the next in a series of universal figures to become the target of her quick-witted rhetoric:

I said, Naturally,
You pass the buck.
If it’s money you want
You’re out of luck.

He said, Madam,
I ain’t pleased!
I said, Neither am I.

So we agrees!

In discounting whole swathes of society as non-existent, part of the appeal of news propaganda is its ability to stick in people’s mind. Nowadays, the bombardment is more and more consistent, and we are invited to challenge ‘given truths’ less and less. Paradoxically, an increased freedom and ease of communication has been coupled with a rapidly shrinking attention-span.

I thought that Twitter could’ve been the pinnacle of this, with its 140 character mini-statements, until I was introduced to the device known as ‘Snapchat’, in which you rapidly send your interlocutor a photograph taken with your mobile phone, onto which you can add text or squiggly lines. You have the option to choose how long the photo will remain on the screen of the other person’s phone; anywhere between one and ten seconds. 

As I remarked to the person showing me this application, I don’t think I’m capable of processing so many individual thoughts in such a short period of time; of switching my emotions from ‘confused’ to ‘laughing out loud’ in the blink of an eye, or the snap of a ‘selfie’. 

Even so, the ability to express thoughts concisely is a virtue, and Langston Hughes was the master of that. He was very much a voice of his generation, a product of the place and time in which he lived, speaking to peoples immediate grievances and fears rather than of abstract concepts. Yet his ability to sum up, with acute succinctness, the political issues of the underclass, also made him ahead of his time.

As the technological debate comes full circle, and we are told that most things we type, post or snap are not so secret, it’s worth re-reading a poet who made the argument that a balance needs to be sought, that intimidation isn’t the answer to the questions facing society. And so, in the 75, Twitter-friendly characters of ‘Democracy’:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

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