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Poetry and protest…

9 September 2006

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–
And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

photo: Reforma.com

The protests — and the photo (these protests were in Cuernavaca, and forced President-elect Calderón to cancel a visit to his hometown) made me think about what the people are really protesting — not the particular candidate — but the whole system they see as rigged. Mexico has done fairly well in the last century, and the poor should not be poor… but are. What AMLO and the election meant to these people was a chance to change a rigged system… to get their shot at a decent life… if not a Lexus, at least a used Vocho.

There’s the theory that what causes people to rebel is not inequality, but the perception of inequality… the frustration of seeing a wealth and a decent standard of living denied… there are academics who’ve written on this, and you can look up “think tank” position papers on it… or you can read poetry.

Wouldn’t you know it. There is a Mexican connection.

Langston Hughes was born in Lawrence Kansas in 1902. His family was middle-class, educated and distinguished. A grandfather had fought with John Brown. On the other side, his grandparents were pioneer settlers in Okahoma. His father had a law degree. But, the family had a problem — or America had a problem. The Hughes were African-American. James N. Hughes could not reconcile himself to his own “dream deferred.” Unable to practice law in the segregated U.S. of his time, he left his family behind to take up a new life running a factory in Toluca.

In Mexico, Hughes Sr. was just another gringo. He was prosperous, and — by the standards of Toluca — wealthy. When 16-year old Langston graduated from High School, his father sent for him. Langston always claimed he wrote his first poem (“A Negro Speaks of the River”) on the Kansas City to Mexico City train. Though he would travel widely the rest of his life, Mexico … and later Harlem, would remain his true home.

James was a proud, difficult man. To his Mexican workers, he was a codo pinche gringo, but they accepted his son. Langston, like so many gay adolescents, wasn’t comfortable with his father, nor his father with him. Like so many footloose gringos since, he found a job teaching English. And, he learned to write. Langston spent more time with the workers, one of the people, than with his gringo father — like most writers, more an observer than a participant, but he managed to acquire fluent Spanish that stood him well in his future life.

James had turned his back on Jim Crow America, and even if he did not quite understand his son, he did not want Langston to go back to a race obsessed country. James was a wealthy enough man to offered to pay Langston’s education, provided he study something practical, and out of the United States. But, Langston was headstrong too.  He was going to be a poet.  And that was that.  And his mother wanted him back. James finally agreed to pay for Langston to attend Colombia University, since he and his mother could live in Harlem — a respectable “Negro” neighborhood in the segregated U.S. of his day.– if he studied Engineering.

Langston never finished his degree. He soon tired of a “respectable” academic job, as a secretary to Carter Woodson, the father of African-American history, but found he made more money (and for a young gay man, had a better time) working as a waiter and busboy… and then as a cabin boy on merchant ships.

Good-looking, bilingual, witty and intellegent, Langston got by until 1925, when he was “discovered” by Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay was white, but his poetry mixed jazz riffs and evangelical religious themes (he was the rap star of the Great Gatsby era) which made him the expert on who was — and who wasn’t — an “authentic Negro” voice. Langston was in.

Like other artists, he had to put up with patrons. Someone launched the bright idea of sending him on a speaking tour around the rural South — which during the Jim Crow 1920s, was not exactly the safest place for an African-American intellectual. With some rueful humor, he noted the absurdity of segregation. In places that wouldn’t serve “negros”, they would serve him if he was a Mexican. In Texas, where there was segregated facilities for Mexicans… he was tempted to claim to be Cuban — just to see what would happen.


Though he could laugh at segregation and racism, like his father, he never reconciled himself to it. Unlike his father, he never saw wealth or respectabilty as a way of immunizing himself from it. He continually returned to Mexico, sharing an apartment (now gone, near Plaza Garibaldi) in the 1930s with Henri Cartier Bresson, who documented the lives of la Capital’s poor.

Hughes wrote respecfully of the poor, and of Mexican rural life for a number of publications. Like other minority writers of the time, he joined the Communist Party, but other than writing for “The Masses,” he was too much an artist to have much to do with the Party. In the 1950s, he returnrf to Mexico to avoid political persecution for his former Communist association.

By the mid-1960s, Hughes’ writings were more or less relegated to junior high school anthologies. Already dying of cancer, he gave up writing his weekly newspaper column in 1965, and died in 1967. Despite admirers like James Baldwin (himself African-American and gay), Hughes was seen as passe, a figure from the “Harlem Renaissance” and insuficiently militant for the time. He wasn’t “black enough”. Nor should do he need to be.  He was human.  

 As his Mexican writing shows, it wasn’t “race” or place that he noticed — it was the people, their folk ways and spirt of survival, their dreams and their dreams deferred.
Photos, Henri Cartier Bresson, Mexico City, 1934


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