Langston Hughes and the Real Harlem Renaissance


Pastel drawing of Hughes by Winold Reiss (bio) via

Advertisement For The Waldorf-Astoria
by Langston Hughes

Fine living . . . a la carte?
Come to the Waldorf-Astoria!

LISTEN HUNGRY ONES!
Look! See what Vanity Fair says about the
new Waldorf-Astoria:

“All the luxuries of private home. . . .”
Now, won’t that be charming when the last flop-house
has turned you down this winter?
Furthermore:
“It is far beyond anything hitherto attempted in the hotel
world. . . .” It cost twenty-eight million dollars. The fa-
mous Oscar Tschirky is in charge of banqueting.
Alexandre Gastaud is chef. It will be a distinguished
background for society.
So when you’ve no place else to go, homeless and hungry
ones, choose the Waldorf as a background for your rags–
(Or do you still consider the subway after midnight good
enough?)

ROOMERS
Take a room at the new Waldorf, you down-and-outers–
sleepers in charity’s flop-houses where God pulls a
long face, and you have to pray to get a bed.
They serve swell board at the Waldorf-Astoria. Look at the menu, will
you:

GUMBO CREOLE
CRABMEAT IN CASSOLETTE
BOILED BRISKET OF BEEF
SMALL ONIONS IN CREAM
WATERCRESS SALAD
PEACH MELBA

Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.
Why not?
Dine with some of the men and women who got rich off of
your labor, who clip coupons with clean white fingers
because your hands dug coal, drilled stone, sewed gar-
ments, poured steel to let other people draw dividends
and live easy.
(Or haven’t you had enough yet of the soup-lines and the bit-
ter bread of charity?)
Walk through Peacock Alley tonight before dinner, and get
warm, anyway. You’ve got nothing else to do.

~

Since I wasn’t born yet during the thirties, when I heard the term “Harlem Renaissance” it merely conjured the idea of artistic revival. But it’s obvious from the above poem and Hughes’s central role in its history that the Renaissance was a lot more about rage and revolution than I had thought. Scott Fowler agrees:

The Harlem Renaissance marks the point when blacks began to stop denying the
blackness inside themselves and began denying the god that put their race through great trial and tribulations. Langston Hughes was at the forefront of this involvement. He understood that it didn’t matter what others thought of the Negro experience. He knew that as long as blacks embraced their heritage, and took pride

Activist Mike Roselle (Democracy Now interview, email, website) had asked me today:

Did Langston write any good sand poetry?

Mike will be reading from his new book September 28 at Bus Boys and Poets, which of course runs their name together on their website, so that it also can be read Bus Boy Sand Poets. I somehow missed this and had been telling him about Hughes in the context of the origin of the name one of my favorite spots in DC, after attending the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.
Missing out on Mike’s whimsy, I wanted to answer the part about “good.” I found was the kick-ass “Advertisement For The Waldorf-Astoria” (above) available in Hughes’s Collected Poems (Vintage, 1995), which I had not read before.

I’m guessing that this poem may have been suppressed during the Cold War, just as the terser poem, “Goodbye Christ.” Joshua Good (email) doesn’t mention but the latter poem, so I’ll have to read the second volume of Arnold Rampersad (email)’s Life of Langston Hughes (Oxford University Press, 1986 and 1988) to see if Rampersad mentions “Advertisement.”

In an January 2009 article in Poetry Magazine on newly discovered political poems, Rampersad talks about the suppression of Hughes in general:

By the end of 1933, in the depths of the crisis, he had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include “Good Morning Revolution” and “Columbia,” but above all, “Goodbye Christ.” Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, “worker,” “peasant,” “me.” Around 1940, under severe pressure from conservatives, Hughes repudiated “Goodbye Christ” as an unfortunate error of his youth. However, in 1953 he was again forced to condemn this poem when he appeared, by subpoena, before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s infamous subcommittee probing allegedly “un-American” activities by some of our leading scholars, scientists, and artists. At his core, Hughes was a lyric poet entranced by the charms and mysteries of nature. Nevertheless, political protest was a key aspect of his writing virtually from his high-school days, when many of his classmates were the children of Jewish and Catholic immigrants from Europe who taught him the importance of protesting against injustice. A stirring voyage to colonial Africa in 1923, when he was barely twenty-one, only intensified his commitment to protest art.

Hughes certainly suffered right wing propaganda against him, as this flyer by Huey Long buddy Gerald L.K. Smith and publisher of The Flag and the Cross illustrates:

The flyer also points to how ferment on the right is nothing new. (In case any of my younger readers have not read about the McCarthy hearings or missed my post on Cointelpro.)

Hughes explains the genesis of “Advertisement” in his The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940, reissued by Hill and Wang in 1993:

In the midst of that depression, the Waldorf-Astoria opened. On the way to my friend’s home on Park Avenue I frequently passed it, a mighty towering structure looming proud above the street, in a city where thousands were poor and unemployed. So I wrote a poem about it called “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” modeled after an ad in Vanity Fair announcing the opening of New York’s greatest hotel. (Where no Negroes worked and none were admitted as guests.)

The hotel opened at the very time when people were sleeping on newspapers in doorways, because they had no place to go. But suites in the Waldorf ran into thousands a year, and dinner in the Sert Room was ten dollars! (Negroes, even if they had the money, couldn’t eat there. So naturally, I didn’t care much for the Waldorf-Astoria.)

~

So, about Bus Boys and Poets–it’s a restaurant/bookstore/performance space/community center for progressives, founded in the U Street neighborhood in 2005 by activist, artist and restaurateur Andy Shallal. He named it in honor of Hughes, who (like Duke Ellington and Thurgood Marshall) lived in the neighborhood. Hughes had worked as a busboy in the 1930s at the Wardman Park Hotel (about two miles to the West off of Rock Creek Parkway) , prior to gaining recognition as a poet and then moving to Harlem. (Poet Kwame Alexander has a piece on Hughes in DC on the site Beltway Poets.)

And about sand, I couldn’t find anything for Mike but a reference in a much tamer, more conventional poem, so instead, I wrote back about his essay Are You Spanish,” published in the Chicago Defender (September 18, 1943–see page 50 of Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender, U. of Illinois Press, 1995, edited by Christopher C. De Santis of Illinois State (his webpage, email).

Hughes, suggested that students demand to be served in train dining cars as they returned to college in the South:

If you have to raise sand to eat there, then raise sand. Be firm and logical about it. Don’t use bad language. Don’t threaten. Simply say you are an American.

Mike’s response?

That is some dam good sand poetry!


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