The late Langston Hughes, whose poems were once learned by heart in black schools across America (and fitfully still are,) was once a go-to figure for issues affecting 20th century black America. Elegant and charming, he was able to tap into black folks’ frustration and anger, as well as complex inner lives, with a refined pen. His poem “I, Too, Sing America,” a much referenced and cited work, has served for decades as a pungent interior view of what it is to live in a country that was forcibly built by your ancestors, that you might love deeply, but that still withholds basic citizenship rights from you, and sees and treats you as less than human. The poem speaks with weariness of longing for inclusion, carries a hint of what might happen if full citizenship continues to be thwarted, and gives an arguably over-optimistic prophecy of the shameless finally being shamed once the measure of their own inhumanity is taken.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
The poem “Kids Who Die” is eerily timely (perhaps timeless,) outlining the ways black death, socially and politically sanctioned annihilation of blackness, is a fact of American life. The poem is in direct conversation with everything from #BlackLivesMatter to the Afro Pessimism artists and theorists who’ve been steadily building ground over the last several years. And the poem also connects the country’s fundamental anti-blackness with other forms of bigotry, tying it all together with a critique of America’s unbridled money lust, and how those who pull the purse strings pull all our strings. The video draws a direct line from Emmett Till to Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant to Sandra Bland. It’s a sobering, powerful work.
Though his approach and style took something of a hit in popularity in the 1960s, he’s steadfastly remained one of the giants of black letters; in addition to being a poet, he wrote novels and short stories, collaborated with other heavy weights such as photographer Roy DeCarava (on the landmark out-of-print book The Sweet Flypaper of Life) and trailblazing writer Zora Neale Hurston (on the ill-fated play “Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life,” ) while his poem “Harlem (What Happens to a Dream Deferred?)” was one source of inspiration for Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play “A Raisin in the Sun.” A lot of blogs first revisited “Kids Who Die,” in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder and the acquittal of his murderer. That the poem is even more relevant today than it was a few years ago, and that it is just as relevant today as it was almost seventy years ago, tells you almost all you need to know about America’s race narrative.
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids will die certainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting kids die.
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.