Poetry Month Kid Lit Review of “Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes” Edited by David Roessel & Arnold Rampersad

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, and grew up to be, from the 1920s until his death in 1967 – “probably the foremost poet among African Americans” per this collection’s Introduction.

He didn’t get along with his father, later writing: “My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro.” The effect of this on Hughes can be inferred by the ways in which much of Hughes’ poems insisted on the beauty of the African American identity.

In 1924 he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and in 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes said he carried with him a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass with him all of his life, considering it “his main example that poetry could and should be made out of the speech of ordinary Americans.” He was also influenced by the African American writers who formed the heart of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hughes became primarily known for his portrayals of Black life in America. Author Renée Watson explains in the Foreword how important the poetry of Langston Hughes was to her when she was growing up. She writes: “This was the gift of Langston’s poetry. In his verses I heard my family members, neighbors, and friends.”

She says she believes Langston’s work is timeless “because at the heart of every verse is the subject’s humanity. . . . “He was The People’s Poet – the poet who laughed and cried with us, the poet who boldly penned protest poems and vibrantly celebrated the everydayness of Black life.”

She also talks about the collection of poems in this book: “We see Langston’s righteous rage against injustice alongside love poems and odes…”

She notes that “a hallmark of Hughes’s work is its connection to jazz and blues.” Thus his poems require participation, she avers. “They ask us not only to read them, but to say them out loud, to give a response.”

She concludes:

“As we celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of Langston Hughes’s first publication, we have the opportunity to be the caretakers of his deferred dream. . . . If we are willing, we can see his work not only as poetry but as an artistic call to action, a reminder to find beauty in simple places, to never to be silent, to never stop dreaming.”

The book reproduces 26 of Hughes’s poems, beginning with perhaps his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and including “I, Too,” his well-known response to Walt Whitmans “I Hear America Singing.”

“I, Too, Sing America”

I am the darker brother
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong,
Tomorrow,
I’ll sit at the table
When company comes,
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me.
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America”

–Langston Hughes (1926)

At the bottom of some of the poems are explanations of terms that might be unfamiliar to the intended audience of kids.

The amazing late artist Benny Andrews provides illustrations for the poems. His work is in more than thirty major museums in the US.

Evaluation: Langston Hughes is still popular and relevant after so many years for good reason. His poetry is affecting, inspiring, and unforgettable. Kids will come away with not only a desire to read more of Hughes’ work, but they will get a sense of how powerful poetry can be in a political sense. They can be encouraged to think of contemporary song lyrics – which are after all, just poetry set to music – that perform a similar function.

Rating: 5/5

This edition published by Sterling Children’s Books, 2021

Langston Hughes

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