Photo of Langston Hughes in black and white

Back to the Text

I love poetry. I love the way it looks on the page, I love the way it feels to read out loud. I love its rhythm, its images, and its power. And I love the moments when I read it with my students and it makes sense to them. I’m not necessarily angling for them to like it, but they do often end up enjoying it. Because a lot of people, I’ve learned, don’t. Poetry can be and is often considered elitist or inaccessible or “useless” outside of artistic or academic circles. But the thing is, I don’t think poetry should be confined to the artistic or the academic. I don’t think it belongs only in the classroom. In fact, I worry that by keeping it in a classroom and stamping it as curriculum, it eventually will go the way of the buildings and curriculums that hold it. 

My training and my heart are in Victorian literature. To the Romantics and Victorians, poetry (and language more generally) was the essence of life: the thing that could create life and could explain life in the world. Now, even in 2020, when we have a pretty expansive grasp on the concept and workings of life through science and technology and philosophy and art, I still don’t disagree. But I do think that the study and joy of language can’t only be confined to classrooms or old books or history, if we want to take advantage of all it has to offer. 

So, when I started my internship at the National Czech and Slovak Museum this summer my goal was accessibility. I wanted to take my training in teaching and writing and research out of and beyond the classrooms that I love working in. When they asked me to consider programming workshops specifically addressing the current protests and their current exhibit, Artists as Activists, I did what scholars and teachers in the Humanities are trained to do when they don’t know quite what else to do: I went “back to the text.” That is, I went back to poetry and to one of my favorite poets of the 20thcentury (and of all centuries) who used his writing to speak out against oppression. I went back to Langston Hughes. 

I picked Hughes for many reasons: he is one of the most famous voices of the Harlem Renaissance, his work is profound, his poetry is accessible for readers of various levels, it’s pleasurable to read in the sense that his language is rich, but it’s painful to understand because we canunderstand it through our own experiences. (For some it’s lived experience and for some it’s witnessed experience.)

Also though (and here come my research skills), Hughes, as with many Harlem Renaissance writers, had an admiration for the newly-established Czechoslovakia because it had peacefully freed itself from the oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire after WWI. Hughes and others looked at Czechoslovakia as an example of resistance and freedom. Likewise, Czech poets used Hughes as an example of how to use art, and poetry specifically, to speak out against the government. When Czech writers were censored because of their government critiques, they could still import and translate African American writers like Hughes who were speaking out against their own governments.* 

The circularity in this relationship is critical and it speaks to the ways that culture and geography and art and revolution are all bound up in one another, bouncing off one another, creating one another. Hughes named one of his poems on Czech oppression “Song for Ourselves” which rings of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself written a century before. Hughes, an African American poet of the 20th century takes the words of Whitman, the 19th-century figure of democracy, to sing (almost literally, with his jazz style) the African American experience of oppression in the echo of Whitman’s song of freedom. Hughes shows us that this song of ourselves is connected with all other songs of oppressions the world over. There is no singular experience of oppression or democracy or freedom. In 2020, this is a centuries-old song.

Little did I know when I started at the National Czech & Slovak Museum I would have the opportunity to create a workshop around Hughes and the issue of oppression. The workshop is public-facing, for community members, students, museum members, whomever really. It will be a celebration of Hughes as much as sitting in heartbreak that is so familiar to us almost a century later. But I’m looking forward to it because I trust poetry and poets to raise questions in us. I trust them to raise their own borders and create their own readers. I trust them to meet us in our present moment no matter how much or how little we know about them. And we don’t need a classroom for that.

Song for Ourselves

by Langston Hughes

Czechoslovakia lynched on a swastika cross!
Blow, bitter winds, blow!
Blow, bitter winds, blow!
Nails in her hands and nails in her feet,
Left to die slow!
Left to die slow!
Czechoslovakia! Ethiopia! Spain!
One after another!
One after another!
Where will the long snake of greed strike again?
Will it be here, brother?

*I’m indebted to the article “A Long Way from Prague: The Harlem Renaissance and Czechoslovakia” written by Charles Sabatos for this information. 

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