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David and Art - Langston Hughes

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

Discovering something surprising about a favorite artist points to the infinite variety of the arts themselves.

OK, how is it that I’ve lived as long as I have and only last week discovered that Nina Simone recorded a song called “Backlash Blues” whose lyrics were written by poet Langston Hughes the year I was born? How does that happen? How do I miss something like that?

Honestly, that’s one of the deepest questions from the art world. “How did I miss this?” How is it that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave? How is it that Van Gogh died unknown? People miss stuff. It’s part of what makes the arts so interesting to think about and why they can be so enlightening about ourselves. Here I am thinking I’ve got a pretty good handle on stuff and it’s not until I’m…the age I am…that I realize that I didn’t know that a poet I associated with the Harlem Renaissance teamed up with one of the greatest soul singers of the 1960s and created a deep, timeless rumination on justice, and a blues classic. And I missed it. Until now. Better late than never, I guess.

Part of my problem is that I kept Langston Hughes bottled up in the Harlem Renaissance instead of giving him full run of American culture, which is what good poets—and good artists of every sort—should have.

We do artists an injustice by associating them exclusively with a particular time.

I think of Langston Hughes, in a sense, as being trapped in the 1920s. I realize that now. I only thought of him alongside Alain Locke and Cab Calloway and Zora Neale Hurston. And then suddenly here he is writing lyrics in 1966 for a song that’s imbued with the passion not of the Roaring ‘20s but of the Civil Rights Movement.

But it’s not suddenly. His most famous poem is one called Harlem and it’s popularly known as “A Dream Deferred.” But that didn’t come out of the Harlem Renaissance. He didn’t write that one until 1951, when the promise of Civil Rights was by no means realized. And then 15 years later he writes a poem called “Backlash Blues” that's even more frustrated. The dream continued to be deferred.

I like Langston Hughes a lot and rank him high among American poets. But I couldn’t have been more wrong about him, at least his timeline.

But the arts are like that—they’re always ready to surprise you with something you didn’t know. But they’re also forgiving. If you’re late to the game, art doesn’t mind at all. You can still get in on it. As long as you get in while you still have time.