A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia by Hans Ostrom, Professor of English

In his introduction, Hans Ostrom defines—in the same comprehensive manner found in the encyclopedia’s hundreds of alphabetically arranged entries—who might find this informative reference useful: “Because Hughes produced work in almost every genre imaginable,” he writes, “the encyclopedia contains information potentially significant to those interested in poetry, short fiction, the novel, autobiography, drama, musical theater, opera, the blues and other popular songs, children’s literature, anthologies, and journalism. Individuals engaged in work on the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Civil War, folklore, translation, collaborative authorship, American English, African American newspapers, labor history, 20th-century American history and politics, and Russian, Caribbean, and African cultures may also find the encyclopedia helpful.”

The book’s entries range in length from a single line to several pages. All are carefully cross-referenced and footnoted, and packed with interesting information, as the following excerpts show. Puget Sound professors William Haltom and Diane Duffrin Kelley also contributed.

“The Backlash Blues.” Poem of about one page in blues form but, as the title suggests, focused on politics—specifically, the backlash against gains made by African Americans and other disenfranchised groups during the civil-rights movement. The poem reveals that Hughes saw disproportionately racially divided communities and low wages for blacks, for instance, as evidence of such a backlash. In the poem he adopts a collective persona—an “I” who is “Brown, Black, Beige, Yellow” and who is speaking “to” another symbolic figure, “Mr. Backlash.” Believed to be the last poem Hughes submitted for publication before his death, it was first published posthumously in Crisis (June 1967) but was probably written as early as 1966, when it was also turned into a song, music for which was composed by Nina Simone. ASCAP lists the song as being published by the Rolls Royce Music Company and EMI/Waterford, Inc. The ASCAP registry number is 310234261.

Central High School, Cleveland, Ohio. The high school for which Hughes graduated in 1920. The first free public high school west of the Allegheny Mountains, it was founded on July 13, 1946, on Prospect Avenue, west of East Ninth Street in Cleveland. In 1856 it moved to the corner of East Ninth Street and Euclid Avenue; it outgrew that facility, and a third complex was built between Wilson Avenue and East 55th Street (2200 East 55th), which is where Hughes attended high school and contributed writings to the school magazine at the time, the Belfry Owl. He also published two stories in the Monthly, also a publication of the high school: “Those Who Have No Turkey” and “Seventy-five Dollars.” Both stories are reprinted in Langston Hughes: Short Stories. “Mary Winosky,” a story written, as Harper indicates, “for an English assignment in 1915” at Central High, is held at the Langston Hughes Papers of the James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale University and has been reprinted in Langston Hughes: Short Stories. In 1940 the school moved to its present location at 2225 East 40th Street, and in 1952 it was converted to Central Junior High School, now known as Central Middle School, serving grades six through eight. In addition to Hughes, other notable alumni of Central High (or Middle) School include John D. and William Rockefeller, Laura C. Spelman (Mrs. John D. Rockefeller), Noble Sissle, General Benjamin O. Davis, jurist Anthony O. Celebreeze, Sr., and Congressperson Louis Stokes. See also Ingram, Zell; “Swing Time at the Savoy.”

“I, Too.” This eighteen-line, free-verse poem is one of Hughes’s most frequently anthologized and therefore best-known works. Its opening line, “I, too, sing America,” echoes Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself and other parts of Leaves of Grass, although in Hughes’s poem the “I” is a collective persona representing African Americans. The foundation of the poem is the extended metaphor of the dinner table, to which African Americans (“the darker brother” of the dining family) have not yet been invited; they must “Eat in the kitchen.” The poem predicts that when the darker brother is one day invited to the table, everyone will realize how “beautiful” he is; therefore, the poem anticipates the Black Aesthetic movement of the 1960s and one of its credos, “Black is beautiful.” The poem was first published in Survey and Graphic (March 1, 1925). Later the renowned American composer Leonard Bernstein set the poem to music as part of his song cycle Songfest. The ASCAP lists the song as being published by Boosey and Hawkes, Inc., and by the Leonard Bernstein Music Company. The song’s ASCAP registry number is 390322873. See also Locke, Alain.

“The Mitchell Case.” Poem of thirty-eight lines with no stanza breaks and with a rhyme scheme similar to that of a ballad. Arthur Weigs Mitchell was the first African American member of the Democratic Party to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Representing the seventy-fourth district in Illinois (including part of Chicago), Mitchell was elected in 1934. In 1937 he journeyed by train from Chicago to Arkansas, but the trail stopped at the Arkansas border, where Jim Crow laws were in effect, and Mitchell was forced to move from a first-class Pullman car to a “colored” car. Later he sued the Rock Island Railroad, claiming that he had a right to sit in the car for which he had purchased a ticket. As reported in the Baltimore Afro American, named in the suit were “Frank O. Lowden, James E. Gorman, and Luther B. Fleming, trustees of the estate of the Chicago Rock Island and Pacific Railway Co.; Illinois Central Railway Co.; and the Pullman Company.” Mitchell lost his case in the lower courts, but the case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on March 13, 1941 (313 U.S. 80 No. 577). A relatively new member of the Court then was Hugo F. Black. He had been appointed by Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, but the appointment became controversial when the Hearst newspapers reported (accurately) that Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Ironically, Mitchell came to Black’s defense during the controversy, saying that “Black is a good man and a true liberal. His Klan membership was a mistake which was rectified.” On April 28, 1941, the Court overturned the lower-court decision, ruling in Mitchell’s favor. (Chief Justice Charles Hughes, who would retire in June 1941, wrote the opinion.) However, the Court essentially ruled only that railroad companies had to provide first-class cars for African Americans, not that they had to desegregate services. Langston Hughes’s poem supports Mitchell’s legal victory but suggests that few people can afford to sue and that the U.S. government is morally and legally obligated to eradicate Jim Crow laws, not merely address them on a case-by-case basis. The poem was first published in the Baltimore Afro American (June , 1941).

“October 16: The Raid.” Poem of thirty-six lines in free verse, spoken to African Americans who are “now free” and reminding them to remember abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), his raid on Harpers Ferry, his trial and execution, and—the poem implies—his moral courage. The first husband of Hughes’s maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, was Lewis Sheridan Leary, who was a member of John Brown’s group and was killed during the raid (October 16, 1859). Hughes’s grandmother later married Charles Langston, also an abolitionist, and moved with him to Kansas. Hughes and his mother lived with the Langstons in Lawrence, Kansas, between 1902, the year of Hughes’s birth, and 1908. The poem was first published under the title “October the Sixteenth” in Opportunity (October 1931).