February 1, 2010
Audio recordings of LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-67) are disarmingly contemporary. On those recordings, he sounds like no one more than his least likely heir, Allen Ginsberg, who borrowed both his incorporation of loose musical forms from blues and jazz and Walt Whitman’s poetic voice. They’re a reminder of how thoroughly Hughes belonged to the century in which he was born, and not, like so many of his contemporaries in the Harlem Renaissance, only its first few decades. Hughes was nearly always younger than the writers and intellectuals around him; he wrote and published the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at 19, and the manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” at 24. The latter somehow functions as a call for both unapologetically Afrocentric and independent-minded avant-garde art; the most important thing, Hughes seems to be saying, is to shock the bourgeois, perhaps especially the black middle class. The history of American literature, black and white, gay and straight, splits down its center at Hughes. When Ginsberg met Hughes, at a party “in ’59 or ’60,” he called it “a great touching moment in history — when Black Mountain poets and painters, Beatniks, the Abstract Expressionists, the free-form jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, all met together in one room.”
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