In 1986, African American poet Gwendolyn Brooks wrote of her life-long friend Langston Hughes: “‘WHAT was Langston Hughes? An overwhelmer. Long ago I felt it was proper to say he had ‘a long reach / strong speech / remedial fears / muscular tears.’ I gave him titles: ‘Helmsman, hatchet, headlight.’ And I suggested: ”See / one restless in the exotic time! and ever, / till the air is cured of its fever.'”
Hughes and Brooks were both in Chicago‘s south side neighborhood, Bronzeville, at mid-twentieth century. Their friendship and poetry showcased a critical love of the black experience. Brooks described Hughes’ mission:
He judged himself the adequate appreciator of his own people, and he judged blacks ‘the most wonderful people in the world.’ He wanted to celebrate them in his poetry, fiction, essays and plays. He wanted to record their strengths, their resiliency, courage, humor.
Hughes first visited Chicago in 1918 as a sophomore in high school. His mother worked as a maid for a milliner in the Loop. Hughes took a job delivering hats, which exposed him to many different neighborhoods near downtown Chicago.
On Sundays, he would stroll along the south side, which he said was more exciting than anything he had ever seen before. “Midnight was like day,” he exclaimed as he explored its crowded theaters and cabarets. It was vibrant, yes, but it was violent as well. He would experience racial violence first hand one day after he had wandered into a Polish neighborhood and was assaulted physically and verbally by a gang of white boys. He found Chicago “vast, ugly, brutal, and monotonous.”
Brooks met Hughes when she was very young and grew to know him well enough “to observe that when subjected to offense and icy treatment because of his race, he was capable of jagged anger – and vengeance, instant or retroactive. And I have letters from him that reveal he could respond with real rage when he felt he was treated cruelly by other people.”
Brooks confirmed that Bronzeville offered a young poet like herself plenty of material. She wrote: “If you wanted a poem you only had to look out a window. There was material always walking, running, screaming, or signing.” Born in Topeka Kansas, but raised in Bronzeville, Brooks published A Street in Bronzeville in 1945. Her work bravely confronted segregation, abortion, poverty, lynching, class, restrictive gender roles, and childhood dreams. Hers was a very honest portrait of Chicago.
Both Hughes and Brooks’ poetry and literature help explain how mid-twentieth century northern structures of racial and class relations demanded new choices, flexibility, and required remarkable adaptability. Moreover, their work shows us that as poets they interpreted these experiences in diverse ways: across generations, across southern pasts, through new northern urban understandings of racism, gender, and sexism, but with the goal of culling beauty and coping mechanisms from the troubling newness and familiar sting of racism and sexism. They offered each other loyalty and love to navigate these waters.
In 1936, Hughes met friends and mentored younger artists and writers in Bronzeville’s vibrant arts and literary scene (including Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, among others). Many community institutions nurtured this young group of African American writers, artists, and musicians. These organizations included the South Side Community Arts Center and the South Side Writers’ Group. Dozens of painters saw the SSCAC as a chance “to stop shining shoes and paint.” Hughes was a valuable resource for the literary set. He offered mentorship and guidance. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, “his personality was magnetic;” one author implored Hughes to remember “us young Chicago writers as your little flowers that need watering regularly.” And he did.
Hughes strongly admired Gwendolyn Brooks. As a judge in a poetry contest sponsored by the “Negro Exposition in 1940” he recommended Brooks work for the main prize. Hughes responded powerfully to her work. He helped her publish her first piece in Negro Weekly. Brooks recalled his willingness to help younger writers “was intent, he was careful. The young manuscript bearing applicant never felt himself an intruder.”
Brooks evidenced serious grit when as a teenager she walked up to Langston Hughes and handed over her manuscript. He was instrumental in his mentoring. He pushed Brooks’ A Street in Bronzeville at length in a column in the Chicago Defender. He gave it the following endorsement: “This book is just about the biggest little two dollar worth of intriguing reading found in bookshops these atomic days.”
Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her work Annie Allen, becoming the first African American to win the award. It delighted Hughes to see Brooks hailed as one of the most remarkable literary talents in America. The feeling was mutual: she threw a going away party for Hughes at her kitchenette apartment recalling, “We squeezed perhaps a 100 people in our little two-room kitchenette party. Best party I’ve ever given!”
Both Hughes and Brooks maintained genuine connections to each other and their communities throughout their entire literary careers. They understood the importance of their relationship to black space and to each other. They valued the honesty with which they approached their communities. Brooks remembered Hughes’ steadfast sincerity; she offered the following anecdote in her autobiography: “dropping in unexpectedly some years later. His dignified presence decorated our droll little quarters. We asked him to share our dinner of mustard greens, ham hocks and candied sweet potatoes, and he accepted. ‘Just what I want!’ exclaimed the noble poet, the efficient essays, the adventurous dramatist.”
Brooks lovingly and jokingly recreates the startling juxtaposition of the Harlem Renaissance genius of Hughes with her quaint quarters. And in doing so, she shows us how sincerely she embraced Hughes’ desire for black writers to be objective about life in all its complexities, but not to scorn it. Hughes did not dispute the right of black authors to tell any story they chose. Brooks embraced this point of view, and he championed her for it. They both followed through on this appreciation for the enormities of the black experience in their work over their long and winding careers.
In 1941, after several rejection letters from publishers, Hughes took a teaching position in Chicago. Sitting on the floor discussing poetry with four-year-olds, Hughes was an instant hit. Brooks remembered Hughes as “an easy man.” She said “you could rest in his presence. NO one possessed a more serious understanding of life’s immensities, no one was firmer in recognition of the horrors man imposes on man, in hardy insistences of reckonings. But those who knew him remember him the memory inevitably will include laughter or an unusually warm and tender kind.” Theirs was a beautiful friendship grounded in a mutual gift for the poetry of place, insightful observation, and appreciation of blackness in all of its greatness.