“In the primitive world, where people live closer to the earth and much nearer to the stars, every inner and outer act combines to form the single harmony, life. Not just the tribal lore then, but every movement of life becomes a part of their education.  They do not , as many civilized people do, neglect the truth of the physical for the sake of the mind.  Nor do they teach with speech alone, but rather with all the acts of life.  There are no books, so the barrier between words and reality is not so great as with us.  The earth is right under their feet.  The stars are never far away. The strength of the surest dream is the strength of the primitive world.”

“You see, books had been happening to me.  Now the books were cast off back there somewhere in the churn of the spray and night behind the propeller.  I was glad they were gone…It was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart – for it wasn’t only the books that I wanted to throw away, but everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past…All of those things I wanted to throw away.  To be free of.  To escape from.  I wanted to be a man on my own, control my own life, and go my own way.  I was twenty-one.  So I threw the books in the sea.”

“Sometimes George said he had relatives down South.  Then, again, he said he didn’t have anybody in the whole world.  Both versions concerning his relatives were probably correct.  If he did have relatives they didn’t matter – lying there as he was now, laughing and talking in his narrow bunk on a hot night, going to Africa.”

“He looked like a choirboy, except that he couldn’t sing.”

“But there was one thing that hurt me a lot when I talked with the people.  The Africans looked at me and would not believe I was a Negro.”

“But there was one little white boy who would always take up for me.   Sometimes others of my classmates would, as well.  So I learned early not to hate all white people.  And ever since, it has seemed to me that most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”

“Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books – where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.  And where almost always the mortgage got paid off, the good knights won and the Alger boy triumphed.”

“Through my grandmother’s stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end.  Nobody ever cried in my grandmother’s stories.  They worked, or schemed, or fought.  But no crying.  When my grandmother died, I didn’t cry, either.  Something about my grandmother’s stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything.”

“But both of them were very good and kind – one who went to church and the one who didn’t.   And no doubt from them I learned to like both Christians and sinners equally well.”

“There I first fell in love with 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.”

“I never will forget the thrill of first understanding the French of de Maupassant…I think it was de Maupassant who made me really want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far away lands would read them – even after I was dead.”

“But I never told them or the doctors that I was sick because I hated my father.”

“The daily papers pictured the Bolsheviki as the greatest devils on earth, but I didn’t see how they could be that bad if they had done away with race hatred and landlords – two evils that I knew well at first hand.”

“For my best poems were all written when I felt the worst.  When I was happy, I didn’t write anything.”

“Then I began to think about other rivers in our past – the Congo, the Niger, and the Nile in Africa – and the thought came to me:  “I’ve known rivers…”

“…for poems are like rainbows:  they escape you quickly.”

[on bullfighting]  “It is not a game or a sport.  It’s life playing deliberately with death.  Except that death is alive, too, taking an active part.”

“I went up the steps and out into the bright September sunlight.  Harlem!  I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.”

“It was a little like my senior year in high school – except more so – when one noticed that the kids began to get a bit grown and girl-conscious and stand-offish and anti-Negro in the American way, that increases when kids take on the accepted social habits.”

[Africa]  “We brought machinery and tools, canned goods, and Hollywood films.  We took away riches out of the earth, loaded by human hands.”

“Sometimes life is a ripe fruit too delicious for the taste of man:  the full moon hung low over Burutu and it was night on the Nigerian delta.”

“Women of the night stood before low doors, with oiled hair and henna-dyed nails.  In the golden light, they were like dark flowers offering their beauty to the moon.  With slender bodies wrapped in bright cloths, they waited for lovers and said no word to those who passed.  They simply stood still, waiting.”

“Hunger came too.  Bread and cheese once a day couldn’t keep hunger away.  Selling your clothes, when you didn’t have many, couldn’t keep hunger away.  Going to bed early and sleeping late couldn’t keep hunger away.  Looking for a job and always being turned down couldn’t keep hunger away.  Not sleeping alone couldn’t keep hunger away.”

“Negro musicians then in France…would weave out music that would almost make your heart stand still at dawn in a Paris night club in the rue Pigalle, when most of the guests were gone and you were washing the last pots and pans in a two-by-four kitchen, with the fire in the range dying and the one high window letting the soft dawn in.”

“That room was right out of a book, and I began to say to myself that I guess dreams do come true, and sometimes life makes its own books, because here I am living in a Paris garret, writing poems and having champagne for breakfast (because champagne is what we had with our breakfast at the Grand Duc from the half-empty bottles left by unsuspecting guests, in their ice buckets – thanks to their fleet removal by the waiters.)”

“And we felt very tristes and very young and helpless, because we could not do what we wanted to do – be happy together with no money and no fathers to worry us.”

“But with all his profanity, the Old Man did not use a single racial epithet.  So I sort of always liked him for that afterwards.”

“Ten months before, I had got to Paris with seven dollars.  I had been in France, Italy, and Spain.  And after the Grand Tour of the Mediterranean, I came home with a quarter, so my first European trip cost me exactly six dollars and seventy-five cents!”

“So I began to try to save a dollar a week toward entering college.  But if you ever started out with nothing, maybe you know how hard it is to work up even to an overcoat.”

“Like the waves of the sea coming one after another, always one after another, like the earth moving around the sun, night, day-night, day-night, day-forever, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its strength like the beat of the human heart, its humor, and its rooted power.”

“The Saturday night rent parties that I attended were often more amusing than any night club, in small apartments where God knows who lived – because the guests seldom did – but where the piano would often be augmented by a guitar, or an odd coronet, or somebody with a pair of drums walking in off the street.  And where awful bootleg whisky and good fried fish or steaming chitterlings were sold at very low prices.  And the dancing and singing and impromptu entertaining went on until dawn came in at the windows.”

“The blues, spirituals, shouts and work poems of my second book were written while I was dragging bags of wet wash laundry about or toting trays of dirty dishes to the dumb-waiter of the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington.”

“I couldn’t bear to have the people I had grown to love locked in long pages of uncomfortable words, awkward sentences, and drawn-0ut passages…Listen, Aunt Hager! Listen, Harriet! Listen, Annjee! Listen, Jimboy! Hey, Benbow! I wanted to make you as wonderful as you really are – but it takes a lot of skill in words.  And I don’t know how.”

“I began to think back to Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, John Brown, Fred Douglass – folks who left no buildings behind them – only a wind of words fanning the bright flame of the spirit down the dark lanes of time.”

Copyright 1940 Langston Hughes.  Renewed 1967, 1968 by Arna Bontemps and George Huston Bass.

photo:  poets.org

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