I have a confession to make. I’ve never read Langston Hughes.
Nope. Not in a class. Not out of class. Know of him. Know of his work. But never really engaged with it.
Yes, I know. I am a special kind of person. Got it.
However, I am growing into my blackness. That means I didn’t learn what it meant to be black until after I became an adult. My dad was Cuban and my mom Guatemalan. My friends were white and Latino. Black folks just didn’t know what to do with me growing up in East Harris County. To them, I was some weird freak, this little dark girl who spoke a different language and acted funny. She didn’t know who Teddy Pendergrass was (not until I moved to Detroit for a summer on an internship). Frankly Beverly and Maze (during my time in Shreveport when I went to a concert) or any other artist that encapsulated the black American experience.
So yes, I am coming to Langston Hughes late. I’m growing into my blackness. I’m joining the party already in progress, but I’m joining the party.
Today, followers of the VONA Facebook page were challenged with some “homework“, reading the poem I Look at the World by Hughes.
Here’s a copy of the poem if you haven’t already read it.
My original thought was oh what a nice poem. Sorry but I’m a prose person so it takes me a while and a couple of readings to get into a poem and unpack it.
I know now that it’s a call-to-arms, to awaken the creative thinking to get out of where you are.
It’s short but packs a punch. I see that in the first stanza. What gets me, to the heart of me, is this line:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
Here is where I nod. I said yes to this. I know what this cage is. I’ve lived in it even without knowing. There are consequences when you leave your space, there always is. But to be awoken, to open your eyes to reality, IS to want to break from the change. I continued reading.
Here is where I nod again:
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
Oh, this gave me anxiety. Of course, they have to go. Of course, they can not be allowed to stand. But how? This reminded me of something someone said to me once. One day you’ll get to the point when the cost of opening up is less than the cost of closing yourself off.
Is it better to say in your cage knowing its wrong but playing it safe or to tear down the wall knowing that it’ll be difficult and could hurt. I guess that will depend on how you badly you want change.
Another thing that gave me anxiety is all the internalizing in this poem. The eyes doing all the watching are in “black face” and “dark face”. It’s not from or of. That word choice is telling, putting the reader in the poem, making them part of the changed world. This continues to the final stanza, when the narrator is looking at their own body. It’s that internal, self-awareness that leads the call to arms.
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind-
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind
Then let us hurry comrades,
The road to find
This call-to-arms is empowering. After self-realization and awareness comes action, and that action comes from creating. This is a solution to being caged, to waking up and realizing that one is in a “narrow space”. Escaping comes from creating, whether it’s art or opportunities.
A lot of punch in three short stanzas. A lot of meaning in few words. A lot of thought in how this fits into the bigger picture of the world.
Like my fellow people of color, I have felt imprisoned, caged, corraled, into situations that were not my choice. That is what was “assigned” to me. A label: angry black woman. A characteristic: lazy, whiny, ugly.
The moment we don’t believe those labels, or even chose our own (writer, activist, entrepreneur) we wake up to the realization of who we are. That is when we need to escape those other labels. And we do that by creating work that reflects our lives and time, actively developing and strengthing our voices, creating opportunities for growth and abundance.
Ironically, that’s how I’m growing into my blackness. I own my label. I embrace it. Afro-Latina. Writer. Daughter. Sister. Chingona.
Eso mero. (My blackness speaks Spanish)
Thank you for the lesson, Mr. Hughes. It definitely wasn’t lost on me. Happy Belated Birthday.
Schooled by poetry,