The January issue of Poetry arrived in the mailbox a couple days ago. They’re using a glossy cover now, and it feels flimsier. I don’t like it. I liked the matte finish. But hey, it’s time for change and cutting budgets. This issue features three previously unpublished poems by Langston Hughes, and a brief introduction by Arnold Rampersad. These poems were found scribbled in the back of an anthology of American poetry. The poems themselves are somewhat brief and poignant, not surprising for those familiar with Hughes. It is neat to see these poems brought to light. What bothers me though is Rampersad’s claim that the third poem, “Remember”, is “the most American of all.” (Read the commentary here, and you can also see the pictures of the original document) I don’t know if he’s referring to all of Hughes’ poems, of just these three, or what. Regardless, what does Rampersad see as American?
The poem invites the reader to remember the past and the bondage of slavery. Like Whitman, Hughes refers to various geographical locations (Carolina, Maine, and Africa) suggesting that slavery and racism was not limited to the South. After remembering these places,
You will see what I mean for you to see–
The white hand:
The thieving hand.
The white face:
The lying face.
The white power:
The unscrupulous power
Like Rampersad states, this poem is terribly bitter towards not just oppression but white oppression. I can only conclude that Rampersad’s statement of the being the most American stems from what America has become, not necessarily what it (she, we) was intended to be. Historically, writers have been dissappointed with America–Cooper, Emerson, Whitman, Douglass, Twain, Hughes, etc. But this poem is not just bitter. I would assert that it is the most racist. White people aren’t the only thieving, immoral, liars–watching the news and how some rulers in the mid-East behave prove this. People in general are thieves and liars, hungry for power and control. Slavery didn’t happen in America because some people were white and others were black, slavery happened because production, money, and control took priority over valuing human life. Is it the fault of the white man or white men? By no means am I belittling the civil rights movement or the pain and suffering experienced in our country’s history. But I think it’s a shame to fight racism with racism. And that is what this poem is at the core: racist.
In a time of political correctness and protesting-to-the-point-of-violence-to get-what-I-want in the United States (and the world for that matter), it’s fashionable to label somebody because of their skin color. Have we changed so much over the past 150 years? Or have the tables turned, simply shifting oppression and hatred to someone else?