Dear Mr. Hughes,
In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began. It was founded by three black women, in response to a recent murder of Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager, in which the murderer was found not guilty. In 2013, I didn’t know of this mouvement, nor the injustice black people faced on a daily basis due to the racism that encompasses the world. I was nine years-old, and I lived oblivious to this, because I could. I never had to be told as a child what to do if I was stopped by a police officer, I never had to be told that people would treat me unjustly due to my race. I was raised in a household where I was taught about racism and how wrong it is. However, I also grew up in a largely white neighborhood, with white privilege; thus, I wasn’t exposed to how severe it was for many.
Even through empathy, I will never truly comprehend how bad it can be for black people. Now, in 2021, I regularly follow the Black Lives Matter movement. However, no form of education comes anywhere near real-life experiences. I still live with white privilege. I have never been in a position of fear due to my race, and I wish you could have said the same. When I read your poetry, anger envelops me. Indignation towards the injustice you had to face. Rage at the racism and oppression that is still pervasive. Resentment towards all white people, past and present, that have suppressed others due to something as beautifully diverse as race. Identity isn’t something anyone should be harmed for; and yet, people who look like me have vehemently forced others into this position, to give themselves a feeling of superiority.
In, “As I Grew Older” and “I, Too,” you speak of the “dream” that many black people have ached for throughout their lives,
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun! (As I Grew Older, ll. 24-32)
As your life progressed, did your idea of this dream change? If you were alive now, would you feel as if you have achieved this dream, or are still fighting for it? Racism may have improved since your time; however, better doesn’t automatically equate to good.
In a time where hate feels indomitable, your poetry is a reminder of what people have overcome. Although the content in “Negro” may provoke sadness or anger due to the injustice demonstrated within it, it has strong tones of resilience and pride for everything black people have overcome. We see a range of suffering, from,
I’ve been a worker:
Under my hands the pyramids arose
I made mortar for the Woolworth Building. (Negro, ll. 7-9)
I’ve been a victim:
The Belgians cut off my hands in the Congo.
They lynch me still in Mississippi. (Negro, ll. 14-16)
But despite the centuries of pain and injustice conveyed through this, you still manage to make it a poem raising existential questions regarding identity. Who are we?, one may ask, to which this poem responds,
“I am a Negro:
Black as the night is black,
Black like the depths of my Africa. (Negro, ll. 1-3)
This feeling of identity has an impenetrable strength to it. I can imagine the bond you have created between people who have similar trauma engraved within their identities. Not only does it show a progression of black history, it shows hope; hope for the futureーfor the aforementioned “dream”.
In your past society and our present one, harmful stereotypes about black people have been propagated. In, “Deferred,” you broke the detrimental idea that black people were all the same, by presenting individuality through different speakers,
All I want is
one more bottle of gin.
All I want is to see my furniture paid for. (Deferred, ll. 29-31)
Then, in, “Dream Boogie,” you portray the false facades of happiness black workers were forced into by their white employers,
Take it away! (Dream Boogie, ll. 15-17)
In these debunkings, we receive a taste of previous stereotypes, allowing us to reflect on the progression of our society. Did you ever suspect your poetry would be seen by people who weren’t even aware of the stereotypes that were so prevalent for you?
Throughout your diverse collection of poetry, we experience an outpouring of pain, hope, resilience, and strength. We observe a contrast between the beautifully seductive language used in “Harlem Sweeties”, the bluesy humour in “Life Is Fine”, and the powerful, dreamlike imagery in “As I Grew Older”. I wonder if you would be pleased with the impact your poetry has had on people globally, or satisfied with the manner in which we are studying it.
Thank you, deeply, for allowing us to live within your work.
With high appreciation,