Post by Bridget Gibbons (’13), student worker in Special Collections.
Langston Hughes was a busy man when he amiably corresponded with a biographer/ journalist on May 20, 1956. The American-born jazz poet and face of the Harlem Renaissance was unable to give the time to search for a copy of his piece Waldorf Astoria because he was “so rushed with a new book, A Pictorial History of the Negro, that I just don’t have a spare moment for basement research.”
Hughes describes his current work and notes that some of his blues poems are being set to music, including Love is Like Whisky and Cool Saturday Night, and the most recent, Lonely House from “Street Scene” in the June Christy album, Something Cool. He comments on his own moving picture which he wrote in 1939 with Clarence Muse, Way Down South, “it is still shown sometimes on TV—to my horror!” Additionally, his play, Emperor of Haiti was produced by Elsie Roxborough, and in his letter he denies speculation that he and Elsie were engaged to be married.
The interviewer wanted to get his hands on Hughes’ stark poem, Waldorf Astoria for good reason. In it he grazes his famous themes of racial and socioeconomic equality, especially in New York City. He challengingly contrasts the luxurious hotel which opened for the social elite during the Great Depression with the lifestyles of the urban poor and in doing so, gives, as he always does, a voice to the oppressed:
Have luncheon there this afternoon, all you jobless.
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.