Langston Hughes: Harlem Ambassador, Dreamer, Joplin Son

32558167790_1a45c00065_cEvery day on my way to work, I drive through the East Town neighborhood of Joplin, Missouri, down a street with the dual name Langston Hughes Avenue and Broadway Street. Part of the old Route 66, it used to be called simply Broadway, but in 1976, the city renamed a portion of it as a tribute to the African-American writer and activist born James Mercer Langston Hughes.

Langston Hughes was the son of Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes and James Hughes, was born in East Town Joplin, in 1901. Not long after his birth, his father left the US, moving to Mexico, and his mother took him to live in Kansas, with him growing up in Lawrence, Topeka, and Kansas City.

If they had not left earlier, Hughes and his mother may well have decided to quit Joplin in 1903, following the lynching of Thomas Gilyard, a black man accused of killing a Joplin police officer in the rail yards just north of Broadway. Not satisfied with the death of Gilyard, a mob of white Joplinites surged through town burning the homes of black residents, causing many African Americans to flee the city. According to Kimberly Harper, in White Man’s Heaven, of the 700 blacks living in Joplin at the time, at least 200 planned to move elsewhere and not come back. Lynching would later become a theme in Hughes’s poetry.

Hughes lived a mobile life and was an international traveler. As a young adult, he relocated to Mexico to be with his father, and then worked aboard a ship that took him to West Africa and Europe, ending up in Paris for a time. His travels also took him to Cuba and Haiti, and to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War as a reporter. Then, in the 1930s, after he had established himself as a writer, he went to the Soviet Union to make a movie about the black experience in the American south. But the movie never developed and he moved on to China, Korea, and Japan. His travels, as well as some of this writings, earned him a call in 1953 to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Some twenty years later, accusations of him being a Communist resurfaced in Joplin during the debate to rename Broadway.

While Hughes’s cinematic plans didn’t come to fruition, he found global success through his writing in a number of genres, including short stories, novels, news articles, non-fiction, and plays. It was through poetry, though, that he is most well known. And while he was born in Joplin, his most famous residence was Harlem, where he laid the groundwork for his inclusion in the literary and cultural movement that came to be called the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes influenced the civil rights movement, as well. According to W. Jason Miller, professor at North Carolina State University and author of Origins of the Dream, Hughes’s poetry was the inspiration behind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s usage of a dream motif, most famously apparent in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

One example comes from his 1951 poem “Harlem” (or “Dream Deferred”), where Hughes asks,

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?

In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, which took its name from Hughes’s poem, opened on Broadway (the area in Manhattan, not the Joplin street). “Harlem” was included in an insert in the show’s playbill, and following A Raisin in the Sun‘s premier, King wrote to Hughes, “I can no longer count the number of times and places . . . in which I have read your poems.”

On my twice-daily workday trip in Joplin, I drive past banners on the light poles that read “Dreams—East Town,” with the added tags “heritage,” “tradition,” “connection,” and “community.” And on what used to be Earl Smith’s grocery store at the corner of Langston Hughes-Broadway and Mineral Street, there’s a mural that was painted in 2016. The mural was a community project, with hundreds, including my son and daughter-in-law, participating in its design and painting.

Titled “Belonging to All the Hands Who Build,” the mural pays tribute to East Town’s history. And the name pays tribute to Langston Hughes’s poem “Freedom’s Plow,” which includes these lines about dreaming, and creating, together:

Thus the dream becomes not one man’s dream alone,
But a community dream.
Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build.

Kimberly Harper, White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909, The University of Arkansas Press, 2010; W. Jason Miller, Origins of the Dream: Hughes’s Poetry and King’s Rhetoric, University Press of Florida, 2015

[photo: “Langston Hughes, author,” by Gordon Parks/Library of Congress, used under a Creative Commons license/cropped]