The Black Poet as Canon-Maker
We all have “our” Langstons, the Langstons usually first encountered in childhood through poetry. The work of Langston Hughes has for several generations of readers helped form a sense of an American poetics and the possibilities of African American literature. Especially for many young black readers of more than one generation, Hughes’s work presents a “race-pride” moment par excellence. He is “our” poet laureate, our “Shakespeare in Harlem,” our Negro man of letters who made his living by the word and who articulated racial issues and strivings through a lens of true love for black people.
In addition to being the best-known, most-read, and most frequently taught African American and, in many cases, American poet, Langston Hughes is also the rare poet for whom one could easily conjure a picture. Think of those lovely early studio portraits, or any number of later images: the photograph with a cigarette dangling from his mouth; at the typewriter from the cover of Selected Poems; or the famous photo of the Negro busboy poet, newly “discovered” by Vachel Lindsay; or the picture of him in profile and quietly joyful on a Senegalese beach at the 1966 World African Arts Conference in Dakar. We even call him “Langston,” as though something in that face and those poems has invited us to do so.
Of all of the genres that he wrote in, it is foremost as a poet that we remember Hughes. This is not because he was a better or more prolific poet than he was, say, a playwright, or that he didn’t accomplish as much in the Jess B. Simple stories. Certainly by 1926, for example, when he published the influential essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he was making a name for himself in other forms.
But the face of the poet is the face that stuck, and Hughes himself held that identity dear. In the introduction to Poems from Black Africa, he wrote:
Traditionally, poets are lyric historians. From the days of the bards and troubadours, the songs of the poets have been not only songs, but often records of the most moving events, the deepest thoughts and most profound emotional currents of their times. To understand Africa today, it is wise to listen to what its poets say—those who put their songs down on paper as well as those who only speak or sing them.
Hughes saw poetry as a representative genre of a people, and he touted its actual power. In 1965, toward the end of his life as that new era in black politics and culture bloomed and flamed, he wrote an introduction for a children’s poetry booklet put out by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). This little ars poetica articulated what he believed poetry could be:
Poetry possesses the power of worriation. Poetry can both delight and disturb. It can interest folks. It can upset folks. Poetry can convey both pleasure and pain. And poetry can make people think. If poetry makes people think, it might make them think constructive thoughts, even thoughts about how to change themselves, their town and their state for the better. Some poems, like many of the great verses in the Bible, can make people think about changing all mankind, even the whole world. Poems, like prayers, possess power.
By the second half of his career, Hughes was indisputably the poet laureate of African American letters. He edited numerous anthologies in different genres. In 1949 he and his great friend, Arna Bontemps, published The Poetry of the Negro 1746—1949, which they then revised at the end of Hughes’s life. In 1956 he published A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, with Milton Melzer, and in 1958, Famous Negro Heroes of America. The legendary African magazine Drum, which was published out of Johannesburg, asked him to judge their short-story contest in 1954, which began a period of deep involvement with African literature and its dissemination. In 1960 he edited African Treasury: Articles, Essays, Stories, Poems by Black Africans, and in 1963, Poems from Black Africa, Ethiopia, and Other Countries. Perhaps his best-known anthology was the 1967 publication, The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present.
Little has been written about Langston Hughes the anthologizer, his role as a shaper of African American culture as well as a maker of it. His lifelong encouragement of younger writers is well known. But more ambitiously, his supporting impulse also represents a move to shape American literature by making the work of black writers available, and to shape African American poetry by putting forth a canon that would articulate a literature that grew and developed dramatically over the course of Hughes’s life. Hughes-as-anthologizer demonstrates his participation in the making of the context in which his own work would be read and placed as well as his responsibility to his literary community. And his edited collection New Negro Poets: USA, which was published in 1964 after a long and noteworthy incubation, allows us to think about African American canon formation at the beginning of a decade of dramatic change.
What follows is the story of New Negro Poets (NNP), assembled by researching the extensive Hughes correspondence in the Beinecke Library at Yale University. Hughes died in 1967; NNP was his last solo take on the African American literary scene and a case study of how even the clearest cultural vision can become distorted on its way to public availability. The final book is never what it starts out to be, and the case of NNP speaks to the times, to white visions of black poetry, and to the making of a cultural anthology by a black poet.
Anthologies require a tremendous amount of work of a certain kind, and to succeed they must implicitly tell a story. The act of consolidating and then distilling invites aesthetic and political choices at every turn, the kinds of choices that subsequently come to appear inevitable when we read the anthology and the editorial hand is made invisible. In his essay “A History of American Poetry Anthologies,” Alan C. Golding discusses Elihu Hubbard Smith’s American Poems, Selected and Original, which was published in 1793 and represented the first anthology of American poetry. Golding writes:
Smith’s Federalism underlies what he saw as the use of his anthology: to build America’s sense of identity by gathering an independent national literature to match and strengthen the country’s newly achieved political independence. This particular political identity which Smith wanted that literature to embody is not what actually evolved, of course. Nevertheless, his and other early American poetry anthologies . . . did share this common goal. The term “American literature,” rarely used before the 1780s, became commonplace after the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Magazines opened their pages to a flood of American writing, as their editors set out crusading pleas for the creation of a “national” literature. . . . [In the nineteenth century] the country still felt an urgent need to assert that it had an indigenous poetry recognizably different from English poetry.
This analysis can be extrapolated to African American anthologies, particularly poetry collections. In his 1921 introduction to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson states plainly:
A people may become great by many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.
In the African American context, “the tradition,” as such, was still in its youth. Johnson’s 1921 offering appeared just forty years before Hughes so enthusiastically embarked on NNP.
Not all poets choose to choose, which is to say, many poets have no interest at all in the specific work and responsibility of putting together an anthology. Mollifying the tender feeling of fellow Negro poets is a difficult business. The Chicago and Detroit poet Margaret Danner, for example, with whom Hughes corresponded from 1944 until his death, wrote to Hughes on 22 April 1960, concerned about poems she hoped would be included in New Negro Poets. In all capital letters, her missive reads, “NOT TO BE INCLUDED IN YOUR ANTHOLOGY WOULD HURT ME VERY MUCH.” After her place in the anthology has been assured, she sends a telegram: “I’m so happy that you like me sweet and fat love Margaret.” (3 March 1963) When the book comes out, she writes, “I am very proud to be included. [But] I wish they had chosen some of my later work.” (4 May 1964) Two years later, when Hughes and Bontemps are revising their 1949 black poetry anthology she writes: “Please publish new poems and please correct my birthplace,” which was listed as Kentucky in New Negro Poets. “I was born in Chicago, Illinois. I have documents to prove this if others need them. I am sure you don’t.” (19 October 1966)
Amiri Baraka, then Leroi Jones, also corresponds with Hughes about his selections in New Negro Poets.
Got word from Indiana a couple days ago that you are using poems of mine in yr ant’y. I’m very happy you are, and that the thing is finally going to come out. But one thing, how come you using those old poems? I’ve got thousands of poems, &c. but I suppose you’re supposed to use what you want. But another thing strikes me as really curious. Why use only that small part of the Lanie Poo poem?? I’d much rather you used another poem, rather than cut that away like that. Is the other material objectionable because of the language? Please let me hear from you, maybe I can send you a substitute poem, or a couple of substitutes?? (27 October 1963)
Hughes has George Bass write a diplomatic reply to say that the anthology has been three years in the making, and that it is being directed “at the education market—high schools and colleges. This prevents the use of any ‘profane and/or obscene’ words . . . that is, words so defined by the public’s mind . . . the folk who buy the books.” Bass also tells Jones that the type has already been set (29 October 1963). These negotiations are part of the territory of anthology editing, and not everyone is up to the particular challenge.
The road to NNP begins with Hughes’s editing of the Winter 1950 issue of the poetry quarterly Voices as a “Negro poets issue.” Inclusion of more established poets, such as Waring Cuney, Melvin Tolson, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Georgia Douglas Johnson, would not fit under the umbrella of “New Negro” a decade later. By 1960 there was a clear sense of an old guard as well as a vanguard in African American poetry. The work was abundant and in flux, and it was high time for a “second generation” of black poetry anthologies that would not include foremothers and forefathers, such as Jupiter Hammon, Phillis Wheatley, and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Even Hughes’s own generation was attaining elder status, so a new black poetry would catch hold of a nascent explosion. As Rosey Pool, the Dutch Holocaust survivor and editor of the 1962 British-published anthology Beyond the Blues, wrote of those years, “There were black poets everywhere—an avalanche of creative power. It was like living a huge volume of BLACK AND UNKNOWN BARDS.”
In the early 1960s most American poetry anthologies were still segregated. Walter Lowenfels’s Poets of Today: A New American Anthology featured an introductory poem by Langston Hughes. In Lowenfels’s introduction he wrote:
While there are now in print two recent anthologies of Negro poets, most general anthologies of American poetry exclude Negroes. In a review of what I called 15 years ago “the Oxford Book of (White) American Verse,” I drew attention to segregation in poetry. Research in this field shows no improvement since then. Apparently other editors do not consider the kind of poems by the 20 Negroes I have included to be poetry. My choice has been determined not by color but by what I respond to when “I hear the voice of America singing.”
The time was right for anthologies to perform the corrective function of making black poetry more widely available.
Excerpt from “The Black Poet as Canon-Maker: Langston Hughes and the Road to New Negro Poets: USA” Copyright 2004 by Elizabeth Alexander. Reprinted from The Black Interior with the permission of Graywolf Press, Saint Paul, Minnesota.
Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem, New York, but grew up in Washington, DC, the daughter of former United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman, Clifford Alexander Jr. She holds degrees from Yale, Boston University, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her PhD....