Merry Christmas, From Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Friday marks the premiere of Black Nativity, the musical motion picture starring Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Nas, Mary J. Blige and many more. The film updates Langston Hughes’s play, which tells the story of the Christian nativity with an all-black cast. Did we mention all the Christmas songs are sung gospel-style?

We’ve been thinking a lot about Langston Hughes lately—his ecstatic poetry and his love for Harlem. In “Harlem Renaissance Redux,” Cam Terwilliger talks about Hughes’s literary compatriots Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston and Jean Toomer, as well as the writers he influenced such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison:

Langston Hughes was known as the Poet Laureate of Harlem. Picture him in the juke joints of the 1920s, hunched at a table in the back, scribbling in his notebook, absorbing the rhythms of the music. Hughes haunted the jazz clubs “to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street…. [They] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.” Hughes achieved this in his landmark debut, The Weary Blues (1926), which takes its title from a poem about a Harlem piano player.

Though Hughes traveled in Africa and Europe for extended periods, he felt most vital in Harlem, the place teeming with the sweet and hot sounds of jazz. As Hughes’s contemporary, Harlem journalist Joel A. Rogers, wrote, “The true spirit of jazz is a joyous revolt from convention, custom, authority, boredom, even sorrow—from everything that would confine the soul of man and hinder its riding free on the air.” Hughes’s own work embodies this spirit. In his poem “Dream Variations,” the speaker sings:

To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

…That is my dream!


Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress