A Poet in the Sun

This year marks the centennial of the birth of James Langston Hughes, who was known as the "Poet Laureate of the Negro Race." Many people who are familiar with Lorraine Hansbury's play, "A Raisin in the Sun," may not know that the title and the opening poem are derived from Hughes' poem, "Dream Deferred."

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up / Like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore -- And then run?/ Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over -- Like a syrupy sweet?/ Maybe it just sags / Like a heavy load / Or does it explode?

Hughes was one of the earliest African-Americans to earn his living exclusively as a full-time writer. He wrote poetry, novels, short stories, articles, plays, musicals, operas, autobiographies, radio and television transcripts, essays and columns. He also edited anthologies. Alice Walker's first published short story, "To Hell With Dying," appeared in "Best Short Stories by Negro Writers," which Hughes edited.

He worked with Carter G. Woodson, founder of Negro History Week, later Black History Month, and founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater. All told, he had 50 books and 800 poems published during his 65 years, according to the Library of Congress bibliography.

His "Simple" series of books started as articles about Jesse B. Simple, a Harlem everyman who needed to be encouraged to support the racially segregated armed forces during World War II. Hughes and others in the black press wrote about the "Double V," the need for a victory against fascism overseas and against racism at home.

Hughes remained unswervingly faithful to his craft and his people with one notable exception: when he was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Hughes chose to preserve his career and livelihood rather than risk blacklisting and certain economic ruin. He disappointed many by disavowing his admiration for socialism and communism and for abandoning Paul Robeson, W.E.B. DuBois and others by testifying that his past pro-communist works did not represent his current thinking at the time.

The U.S. Postal Service honored Hughes this year with a self-adhesive stamp in honor of his centennial and the 25th anniversary of the Black Heritage Series of stamps. One hundred years after his birth and 35 years after his death, Hughes remains a preeminent literary figure. His writings are timeless, and few, regardless of race or gender, can fill his literary shoes.

Akilah Monifa is a regular contributor to AlterNet on issues of race and social justice.

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