Strong enough to hold a ship, able to slip through fingers; Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

There’s this Langston Hughes poem, “Brand New Clothes,” that we recited at Holy Savior Academy. I was in preschool, it was my first school and it was filled with girls and boys who looked like me. We were in an auditorium for a recital or performance of some sort. In unison, we recited the name of the poem and author, dragging out the vowels in each word of “by Langston Hughes” in that sing-songy voice particular to young children on stage. Our teacher, or the older children – I can’t really remember, my memory’s never been that good – recited the lines and we repeated them.

My mama told me

You better get off your knees with those

brand new clothes on

Last year at this time, I was having the best day and drove to downtown Lawrence to listen to some prose and poetry and eat cake. On that day, it only just crossed my mind how serendipitous it was that Langston Hughes’s birthday ushers us into February. The Singer of America, The Speaker of Rivers. Who else could do it so well?

In the children’s section of a used bookstore at the border of Berkeley and Oakland I saw a book of Langston Hughes’s poetry and I picked it up and scanned each page. I tried to find the words I know from back then, but I didn’t find them. I never do. It always makes me doubt my memory, what’s real and what really happened. Have I known rivers? Rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins? Has my soul grown deep like the rivers?

We said the next part of the poem in unison:

But mama, I’m already down

May I stay down?

She said no. And she had her way.

That’s why I’m so clean today.

The answer is yes, I have. The answer is of course. The answer is to emphasize the “too” in “I, Too, Sing America.” The answer is that this month and this history belong to all of us in the same way that America does. The answer is that I hope the girls and boys who read that book of Langston Hughes poetry will get something lodged into that space of memory between interpretation and understanding and sing of rivers, or America, too.

Aren’t birthdays the best?

Langston Hughes

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One thought on “Strong enough to hold a ship, able to slip through fingers; Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes

  1. I adore Langston Hughes, and I adore this post.

    I must find this children’s book of Langston Hughes’s poetry! Harper neeeeeds it. But I hope they make a “board book” version, because she is, how shall we say, untrustworthy with real pages.

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