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We Are the American Heartbreak: Langston Hughes on Race in a Rare Recording

Reflection on “the rock on which Freedom stumped its toe.”

We Are the American Heartbreak: Langston Hughes on Race in a Rare Recording

The African American poet, essayist, playwright, novelist, and jazz poetry pioneer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902–May 22, 1967) was in a sense the William Blake of his generation — like Blake, he was endowed with a rare poetic genius that incurred merciless ridicule by the era’s critics and was often wholly ignored by the public. In a New York Times Book Review essay published two years after his death, Lindsay Patterson went as far as calling him “the most abused poet in America” and wrote:

Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, ands most black critics only grudgingly admired him. Some, like James Baldwin, were downright malicious about his poetic achievement. But long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes’s poetry will be blatantly around, growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius.

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Patterson was a far seer. Today, Hughes stands as one of the most beautiful, beloved, and important American voices of the past century, perched in time and thought partway between Walt Whitman and Ta-Nehisi Coates. His poems continue to speak to the problems and possibilities of his nation, making insistent room for responsibility and redemption in equal measure. To those of us who came to American from the outside, they offer an unparalleled framework for understanding the deep traumas and old scars of this country, which we are now inheriting and are equally tasked with healing.

Several years before his death, Hughes sat down to read his work and discuss the spirit behind it in a series of audio sessions for the BBC and Caedmon Records. Twenty-seven of these rare recordings were eventually assembled in the wonderful compilation Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes (public library). Among them is a sobering piece titled “We Are the American Heartbreak” — a discussion of the central themes and concerns fomenting Hughes’s literary imagination. He begins by reading one of his most poignant poems, “American Heartbreak,” but he changes the original opening line from “I am the American heartbreak” to “We are are the American heartbreak” — a wokeful invitation to pluralism all the timelier today:

We are the American heartbreak —
The rock on which Freedom
Stumped its toe —
The great mistake
That Jamestown made
Long ago.

That is one of my poems about the problems of the Negro people in relation to American democracy. Perhaps we should say the problems of American democracy in relation to the Negro people, because for some reason the Negro in America has always been called “a problem.”

Well, I guess we are.

Many of my poems try to capture various aspects of this problem. I’ve written poems about housing. For example, when Negroes move into some American communities, even if it’s just one Negro family moving into a block, within a few days, sign begin to go up: “For Sale.” And, usually, the real estate brokers who handle the sales double the prices on those houses — because they know that Negro people often have a hard time buying decent homes, and so they charge them more for the homes that eventually they are willing to sell them.

Well, I try to put these things — these problems — into poetry. In recent years, more and more Americans have been leaving the big cities for suburban areas and among them have been a number of Negroes who are able to buy homes in the suburbs. Well, if those folks move to, say, Saint Albans, white people flee from Saint Albans, move a little further out on Long Island. Negroes — those of means — then themselves try to move a little further out on Long Island, white people flee a little further, and after a while … you get to the ocean.

So, I suppose, suburbia eventually will be only in the sea — I don’t know where else it could be, around New York, at any rate.

Langston Hughes Reads Langston Hughes is a treasure in its totality, featuring Hughes’s readings of classics like “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and his reflections on how he became a poet. Complement it with his little-known children’s book about jazz and read some of his poems at the Academy of American Poets, then revisit Albert Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois’s forgotten correspondence about racial relations and racial justice.

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George Bernard Shaw on Suffering

“What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be.”

George Bernard Shaw on Suffering

“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life. But what is the use of our agency if we can’t enlist it in ameliorating our suffering?

The counterintuitive relationship between the two is what George Bernard Shaw (July 26, 1856–November 2, 1950) examines in a portion of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (public library) — a clever and surprisingly timeless treatise published in 1928, shortly after Shaw received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Don’t let the title trigger an aversive reflex — Shaw was an ingenious playwright, and his title was an ingenious dramatic device. By addressing the book to this particular imaginary reader in an era when civic and educational opportunities for women were limited, Shaw was giving his actual reader permission to start from scratch; he was giving himself permission to clear the slate in order to reexamine and redefine his subject, stripping politics of the limiting labels slapped onto it — socialism, communism, capitalism — to reflect on its proper purpose in human life.

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Among his central concerns is how society — the civic and political ecosystem to which we belong — can begin to address and alleviate the perennial problem of human suffering, brought into ever-sharper relief by inequality. Nearly a century later, this aspect of Shaw’s treatise comes alive anew, particularly his counterintuitive point about the nature of human suffering and human wellbeing — a point so poignant and perceptive that it impressed even Borges, who cited it in his masterful meditation on time. Shaw writes:

And now a last word as to your own spiritual centre. All through this book, we have been thinking of the public, and of our two selves as members of the public. This is our duty as citizens; but it may drive us mad if we begin to think of public evils as millionfold evils. They are nothing of the kind. What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.

But while suffering isn’t cumulative, Shaw argues, wellbeing is, and therefore so is the opportunity to contribute to our collective wellbeing. He writes:

A thousand healthy, happy, honorable women are not each a thousand times as healthy, happy, or honorable as one; but they can co-operate to increase the health, happiness, and honor possible for each of them.

The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism remains a superb primer on the ideas and ideologies that shaped the modern world and laid the foundations of the social, political, and cultural systems that govern our lives today. Complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from suffering, Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, and Borges on collective tragedy and collective joy, then revisit Shaw on the paradox of marriage.

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A Beginning, Not a Decline: Colette on the Splendor of Autumn and the Autumn of Life

In praise of “the gaiety of those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving.”

A Beginning, Not a Decline: Colette on the Splendor of Autumn and the Autumn of Life

The weather has seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, and even affects the way we think. In our divisive culture, where sharped-edged differences continue to fragment our unity, it is often the sole common ground for people bound by time and place — as we move through the seasons, we weather the whims of the weather together.

Of the four seasons, autumn is by far the most paradoxical. Wedged between an equinox and a solstice, it moors us to cosmic rhythms of deep time and at the same time envelops us in the palpable immediacy of its warm afternoon breeze, its evening chill, its unmistakable scentscape. It is a season considered temperate, but one often tempestuous in its sudden storms and ecstatic echoes of summer heat. We call it “fall” with the wistfulness of loss as we watch leaves and ripe fruit drop to the ground, but it is also the season of abundance, of labor coming to fruition in harvest.

The peculiar pleasures and paradoxes of autumn are what the great French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (January 28, 1873–August 3, 1954), better known as Colette, explores in a portion of Earthly Paradise: An Autobiography of Colette Drawn from Her Lifetime Writings (public library) — the posthumously published, out-of-print treasure that gave us her abiding wisdom on writing, withstanding criticism, and the obsessive-compulsiveness of creative work.

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Recounting an essay assignment from her schoolgirl days, Colette writes in the autumn of her life:

It has always remained in my memory, this note written with red ink in the margin of a French composition. I was eleven or twelve years old. In thirty lines I had stated that I could not agree with those who called the autumn a decline, and that I, for my part, referred to it as a beginning. Doubtless my opinion on the matter, which has not changed, had been badly expressed, and what I wanted to say what that this vast autumn, so imperceptibly hatched, issuing from the long days of June, was something I perceived by subtle signs, and especially with the aid of the most animal of my senses, which is my sense of smell. But a young girl of twelve rarely has at her disposal a vocabulary worthy of expressing what she thinks and feels. As the price of not having chosen the dappled spring and its nests, I was given a rather low mark.

She considers how autumn haunts the other seasons and signals its superior splendor:

The rage to grow, the passion to flower begin to fade in nature at the end of June. The universal green has by then grown darker, the brows of the woods take on the color of fields of eel grass in shallow seas. In the garden, the rose alone, governed more by man than by season, together with certain great poppies and some aconites, continues the spring and lends its character to the summer.

[…]

Depths of dark greenery, illusion of stability, incautious promise of duration! We gaze at these things and say: “Now this is really summer.” But at that moment, as in a windless dawn there sometimes floats an imperceptible humidity, a circle of vapor betraying by its presence in a field the subterranean stream beneath, just so, predicted by a bird, by a wormy apple with a hectically illuminated skin, by a smell of burning twigs, of mushrooms and of half-dried mud, the autumn at that moment steals unseen through the impassive summer…

[…]

Even a child cannot respond to everything. But its antennae quiver at the slightest signal.

After several pages of lyrically recounted late-summer memories from her childhood, Colette contemplates the singular impressionability of early memory — a sort of time-capsule of consciousness that stays with us for life:

The style of things, the kind of things that we shall love in later life are fixed in that moment when the child’s strong gaze selects and molds the figures of fantasy that for it are going to last.

Art from Collect Raindrops: The Seasons Gathered by Nikki McClure

Reflecting on how her mother entered the autumn of her own life — “with such serenity,” with “the gaiety of those who have nothing more to lose and so excel at giving” — Colette considers the sensorial and symbolic rewards of the season:

Even as I write, it is approaching once again, the season that a schoolgirl celebrated long ago because, precociously, she loved it. It comes back decked in gold, so as to inspire wisdom, or its opposite, so that the chestnut tree may flower a second time, so that the cat, which weaned its last litter in June, may feel the need for further adventures, so that the swallow may be misled and start another nest, so that a ripened woman may glow with sunlight and sigh: “I’m sure there’ll never be another winter…”

And, indeed, how beautiful Colette’s notion is — this notion of autumn as a beginning rather than a decline — as a metaphor for the life-cycle of human existence, in the context of the art of growing older.

Complement this particular portion of Earthly Paradise with Henry Beston on harvest and the human spirit, Willa Cather’s soulful portrait of happiness, painted under the autumn sun, Italian artist Alessandro Sanna’s stunning watercolor ode to the seasonality of being, and this unusual vintage children’s books for grownups about life and death, dedicated to autumn.

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