In Topeka, as a small child, my mother took me with her to the little vine-covered library on the grounds of the Capitol. There I first fell in love with the librarians, and I have been in love with them ever since–those very nice women who help you find wonderful books! The silence inside the library, the big chairs, and long tables, and the fact that the library was always there and didn’t seem to have a mortgage on it, or any sort of insecurity about it–all of that made me love it. And right then, even before I was six, books began to happen to me, so that after a while, there came a time when I believed in books more than in people–which, of course, was wrong. That was why, when I went to Africa, I threw all the books into the sea.- Langston Hughes, The Big Sea
I love Langston Hughes so much. He was the first poet I felt I could really relate to on an emotional level. As I have a habit of reading books out of order I accidentally read his second autobiography years ago first. So from meeting Hughes as a mature and established writer, poet, and traveller in I Wonder as I Wander, I went backwards and met him as a teenager starting off on his career. It was a fun read, a funny one at times. I always love to learn about how writers, poets, artists etc are made. Hughes, from his writing, seems like such a personable man and it was fun to read about his adventures: how will he survive in Paris with no money? What will happen to him after he gets mugged in Italy? Will he ever get into university?
His travels were really interesting, and reading about them and the influence he got for writing, was quite cool. He wrote his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while on the train looking out onto the Mississippi and thinking about what the river had meant to African-Americans, and that led him to think about other rivers in Africa.
Hughes visited Africa before the continent gained its independence and I liked reading the old names and spellings of the countries:
“Along the West Coast we visited some thirty-two ports, from Dakar in Senegal to Loanda in the South. The Ivory Coast, the Gold Coast, Lagos, the Niger, the Bight of Benin, and the Slave Coast, Calabar, the Kamerun, Boma up the Congo, where we moored to a gigantic tree, and our last port, San Paolo de Loanda in Portuguese Angola.”
The black literati in in the 1920s is such a fascinating topic to me. Apart from accidentally reading books in order, I also have the gift of somehow knowing which books to read in tandem that will increase my knowledge. While reading this, I was also reading Fitzgerald’s “Tender is the Night”, and it struck me how differently the black and white Americans living in France lived. Fitzgerald’s Americans were privileged and knew it; Hughes’ Americans (and himself) seemed more real.
The Harlem Renaissance introduced us to Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurstom, Countee Cullen, among others. It was the time Hughes says “the Negro was in vogue”, when black books, plays, and music were in high demand:
It was the period (God help us!) when Ethel Barrymore appeared in blackface in <Scarlet Sister Mary! It was the period when the Negro was in vogue
To end this review, here’s some great advice Hughes was given by Nicholas Vachel Lindsay:
Do not let any lionizers stampede you. Hide and write and study and think. I know what factions do. Beware of them. I know what flatterers do. Beware of them. I know what lionizers do. Beware of them.