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“They’ve Done Taken My Blues and Gone:” Listening to Langston Hughes: a New Year’s Resolution

[By Maryemma Graham]

Like most people, I have been looking back over the year
these last few days, thinking especially about the spikes in the news.  It’s easy to be political, given the November
election, putting Obama in the White House for a second term, giving him and
the nation another first.
But since 2013 is the thirtieth anniversary for the Project
on the History of Black Writing, I want to stick closer to home, to what I know
and do best.

For Black Writing, the National Book Awards Committee’s
selection of Nikky Finney and Jesmyn Ward, for poetry and fiction,
respectively, and Natasha Tretheway’s selection as National Poet Laureate, earn
gold stars for me.  Not only are they all
African American women, but these actions also confirm what many of us already
knew about the quality and quantity of black writing.  There are many excellent poets who others may
not know. Moreover, we can use this increased visibility for exploring the
range and diversity of the newest evolution in Black poetry. Expect more dialog
about this during HBW’s summer institute, “Don’t Deny My Voice,” July 14 –
August 3 at the University of Kansas, funded by NEH.
Speaking of national poet laureates, however, I’m also
reminded of Langston Hughes, who had earned the title “Negro Poet Low-rate,” a
backhanded compliment from some of his fellow poets.  Hughes indeed has much to teach us, and his
infinite wisdom, forged through his extensive career as a poet, translator,
playwright, essayist, satirist, anthologist, literary historian, and fiction
writer for children and adults, was deeply indebted to African American
culture.  Hughes was also unique in his
ability to move across color, language, class, and racial boundaries. 
The opening line from Hughes’ poem “Note on Commercial
Theatre” jumped out at me when I thought about one the most widely circulating
items from last year: the controversy surrounding The Help.  Hughes quipped,
“They’ve done taken my blues and gone . . .”
Kathryn Stockett published The Help in 2009; after a stage run, it was adapted to film for an
August 2011 release.  Not only was it one
of the largest grossing films, ranking # 1 at the box office for multiple
weeks, but it also garnered 4 Oscar nominations and 1 win for best supporting
actress at the 2012 Academy Awards. This fact, coupled with the Screen Actors
Guild Award, meant that even bad press would be good for sales. Throughout
2012, the film faced a mountain of controversy. Hated and loved by as many
black viewers as white, The Help
enjoyed a lengthy and lucrative run in theatres worldwide. 
But here’s perhaps a not-so-surprising fact. The model for
this book, in idea and form, had existed much earlier. Alice Childress (1912-1994) published Like One of the Family: Conversations from a Domestic’s Life in
1956.  A friend of Langston Hughes, Childress
had been a maid herself and based the novel on her own experience, but would
become better known as an actress and playwright (Trouble in Mind, 1955; Wedding
Band
, 1962), a contemporary of Lorraine Hansberry. Her novel, Like One of the Family, did little for
Childress’s literary reputation and brought none of the money that Stockett’s
book and film would receive years later.  Childress was knowingly left-leaning, and the
book was far ahead of its time, even though Hughes used a similar format for
his fictional character Jesse B. Semple (Simple), the series that reached its
readers through black newspapers beginning in 1943.  Childress and the book fared no better with its
1986 rerelease by Beacon, this time carrying a new introduction by noted
scholar Trudier Harris. By the time LaVinia Jennings published the biography, Alice Childress (1995), the writer was
unable to reap any benefits.  Childress had
died a year earlier.
However, Beacon Press was unable to ignore the buzz
surrounding The Help and had the good
sense to take action, which pressure from groups such as the Association of Black
Women Historians strongly encouraged.  ABWH
made a very public objection to The Help,
issuing, in fact, their “Open Statement to the Fans of The Help” immediately upon the film’s release.  Their decision to use knowledge to fight the
stereotypes they believed the film portrayed was a wise one: their  suggested bibliography lists Like One of the Family as the top
reading choice.
Beacon quickly issued its 2012 edition of Childress’s novel with
the tag line: “Like One of the Family,
which provides historical context for
Kathryn Stockett’s novel The Help . .
.” (emphasis mine)—now the standard description on Amazon, Google, GoodReads,
and other sources.
So what do we make of the fact that Stockett, a professional
writer from the South, who turned to Eudora Welty for inspiration and source
material, didn’t mention Childress’s work in any of her media interviews, and
there were many. Is this really surprising . . . or business as usual?  Should we expect, after some further
discussion, with her or among the critics, a change in the tag line for The Help?
Langston Hughes says it best, turning his anger and
frustration into a very fine art. We should all vow to read him more closely in
the New Year. . .  and do our own
homework.
They’ve done taken my blues and gone — 

You sing ’em on Broadway

And you sing ’em in Hollywood Bowl,

And you mixed ’em up with symphonies

And you fixed ’em

So they don’t sound like me.
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
                       
Langston Hughes, 1940
The Project on the History of Black Writing has been
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