The 1940s! Surely there’s nothing to be said about combating overly simplified political narratives, propaganda, infighting, and or demagoguery in that decade, right?
The poems Langston Hughes wrote in the 1940s did not stop calling American domestic politics to account. The Bitter River was a cry of anguish and anger after two more very young Black Americans were lynched. But the thing most of us think of when we think of the 1940s, WWII, gave Hughes a very sharp focus as he called his country to account. I think a lot of American historical accounts act as though the rise in attention to Black civil rights was something that came with the Second World War, but leaders like Hughes were seeing the parallels in prejudice and ill-treatment all along, and calling them out in poems like Beaumont to Detroit: 1943. There was no dawning “wait a minute” afterwards for thinkers, activists, and artists like Hughes: all along, he was saying that Hitler and Jim Crow had the same goals of prejudice, cruelty, inequality.
Still, the poems of the 1940s took a turn for the more lyrical and upbeat than the poems of the 1930s–not all of them, but there was a lot more fun interspersed, and a lot more poking affectionate fun at himself and those near him. Poems like “It Gives Me Pause” and Morning After are in most ways lighter than the entire section from the 1930s. Hughes also introduces the series of poems about Madam Alberta K. Johnson, an opinionated woman full of character and spark. My favorite, not immediately showing up online, is “Madam and the Wrong Visitor,” but I also like Madam and the Minister; I like all of them really, at least from the 1940s. I’d have Madam Johnson (Alberta K) over for coffee any day of the week.
And one of the poems that I would have thought any American could agree was openly positive, sentimental patriotism–until I heard some of the things said about immigrants lately–is Second Generation: New York. That a Black American of that generation reached inside himself to find that beauty in empathy for New Yorkers of mixed white ethnicities is the best of America, the best of urban living in urbane cities everywhere. And anyone who thinks that that kind of intergenerational empathy only works if it’s specifically about Ireland or Poland needs to sit down and have a good hard look at what Hughes was really talking about and why.
Tomorrow the RNC is over, but I haven’t gotten through all the poems–a decade at a time was about all that I could take on–so I’m going to take the rest of the week to finish this off. I don’t see any good reason not to.