Archive for Sunday, January 27, 2002

Lawrence years not without laughter, tears

January 27, 2002


Contradictions clouded Langston Hughes' boyhood in Lawrence.

Like the time he and his black friends were turned away from the gates of a carnival billed as an event for all Lawrence children.

And the day his principal kicked him out of the "integrated" seventh-grade classroom at Central School because he posted a "Jim Crow Row" placard on his desk, which had been relegated to a single row in the back of the room with the other black students.

Yet the several times Hughes returned to speak at Kansas University, he recalled with fondness his childhood in Lawrence, where he lived almost exclusively from 1903 to 1915.

"What we're beginning to understand is that Lawrence was truly pivotal in his development," said John Edgar Tidwell, KU associate professor of English. "We see he reaches back to some of his experiences here in his writing."

Hughes used words poetry, short fiction, novels, essays, newspaper columns, plays, children's books, song lyrics and other works to try to reconcile the kinds of racial contradictions he faced as a boy and to work toward racial equality the African-American "dream deferred."

Now, 36 years after his death, in the centennial year of his birth, Lawrence is still grappling with Hughes' words and honoring his legacy.

"Let America be America Again: An International Symposium on the Art, Life and Legacy of Langston Hughes" is expected to draw thousands of scholars, community members, students, teachers and writers from around the world to KU the weekend of Feb. 7.

The Lawrence Public Library is urging everyone in Lawrence to read and discuss Hughes' semi-autobiographical novel "Not Without Laughter" through this year's Read Across Lawrence project. The book is based, in part, on Hughes' time in Lawrence.

Writing workshops, gospel concerts, plays and readings of Hughes' poetry are scheduled across Lawrence throughout February and into March.

Lawrence roots

Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., but his earliest memories were of Lawrence and the house at 732 Ala., where he lived until he was 12 years old with his grandmother, Mary Langston.

His recollections also include attending church services with his Auntie Reed at St. Luke AME, 900 N.Y. He later said he heard rhythms in the black churches of Lawrence that influenced his poetry.

And Lawrence's streetcars fascinated Hughes. He told a Lawrence audience in 1965 that he long held a dream of being a streetcar conductor.

"I heard him say one time in an interview that he went to bed at night taking comfort in the clickety-clack of the streetcars going up and down Lawrence streets," said Steve Jansen, historian at Watkins Community Museum of History, where a Langston Hughes exhibit is on display.

Hughes spent hours at the Lawrence Public Library, then at 200 W. Ninth St., the building now home to the Lawrence Arts Center. In his first autobiography, "The Big Sea," Hughes wrote that when he felt lonely because segregation excluded him from so much or because neither of his parents lived here he found escape in reading:

"Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

Lawrence historian Katie Armitage, a consultant in 1980 to Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, has created a virtual tour of Lawrence sites of significance to Hughes that she will present at the Hughes symposium.

Continued significance

Sherry Williams, curator of the Kansas Collection at KU's Spencer Research Library, is putting together a Hughes exhibit that will open Thursday. Williams said the Langston Hughes Collection which includes autographed published works, music lyrics, play scripts, photographs, and more is unique because much of the material was donated by Hughes himself.

The exhibit will show the diversity of genres within which Hughes worked, Williams said.

"Hughes was really a genius in so many ways," she said. "He wrote for a broad audience and wrote eloquently about issues that are still pertinent today. We need to keep that in front of us always."

Indeed, Hughes' work has "cross-over appeal," Tidwell said.

"What really makes him have continuing value is when it came to addressing racial issues, he did it in such a way that a true conversation could take place about the nature of the problem."

Hughes had to leave Lawrence to achieve national and international fame, Jansen said.

He graduated in 1920 from Central High School in Cleveland, attended Columbia University briefly and eventually graduated in 1929 from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

'Remarkable achievement'

It was also during this time that he visited his father in Mexico and traveled extensively in Europe, Africa, the Soviet Union, the Caribbean and China.

He lived in New York and was a major player in the Harlem Renaissance, the African-American cultural movement of the 1920s and 1930s.

"Langston Hughes was the first black American writer to make his living solely as a writer," Tidwell said.

Nowadays, with successful black writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Terry McMillan, that "may sound like a simplistic idea," Tidwell said. "But when you start out writing in the 1920s and when segregation is the law of the land, to make a living with the pen is a remarkable, remarkable achievement."

Hughes strove to write about typical black families, Tidwell said, which wasn't so simple because his was not a typical black family. His ancestors were well-educated and championed the dream of racial equality.

Although Hughes and his grandmother lived in poverty, scarcely keeping up with the mortgage payment, Mary Langston refused to do domestic work. Instead, she rented out rooms to make money, Hughes later recalled.

But Hughes drew from his own experiences and those of his friends, and later immersed himself in places rich in black culture, such as Harlem, so that he could write about the black experience using the language of everyday blacks.

"He strongly advocated that black subject matter is as legitimate as any other subject matter," Tidwell said.

Lawrence legacy

Although his stay in Lawrence was brief, Hughes told a Lawrence audience in 1965 just two years before his death that he considered himself a Kansan.

His legacy endures here through the city's efforts to honor him.

A statue of Hughes as a young boy stands in the Watkins museum. In 1977, KU established a rotating professorship in Hughes' name. A plaque bearing the first lines of Hughes' poem "Youth" has greeted visitors to City Hall since 1980. A mural at Central Junior High School includes his portrait. An annual creative writing contest celebrates his literary influence. Lawrence's newest elementary school is named for Hughes.

The KU symposium and other events scheduled this year will continue to spotlight Hughes' influence on both Lawrence and the rest of the world.

"Lawrence is indebted to Langston Hughes," Tidwell said. "During his lifetime, he was sort of not fully appreciated. I think it's appropriate we spend time ... to explore his life, his work and his legacy. I can think of no better place to do that than here."

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