Hughes in Africa

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

I must admit, I am not the biggest poetry fan. I use to be, when I was a teenager filled with angst and driven by my own confusion. Back then, it was the likes of Emily Dickinson that really use to do it for me. However, for all the poems I have read by choice or requirement, this one by Langston Hughes is probably the only one I still remember by heart.

I mention this because I just started reading the autobiography of Langston Hughes last night and just like this poem, his own account of his life is equally fascinating and beautiful. In The Big Sea, the author starts by describing how he tossed all his books of the side off the S.S. Malone during his 1923 voyage as a sailor to Africa. Obviously anyone throwing books into the ocean would grab my attention, let alone one sailing to Africa. What is especially interesting is his whole impression of Africa. First and foremost, Africa is described as basically one big country. He writes:

"We reached the Azores, the Canaries, and finally Africa. A long, sandy coast-line, gleaming in the sun. Palm trees sky-tall. Rivers darkening the sea's edge with the loam of their deltas. People, black and beautiful as the night."

He is also totally unprepared to be labeled as a white man by the 'Africans.'

"But there was one thing that hurt me a lot when I talked with the people. The Africans looked at me and would not believe I was a Negro."

"It was the only place in the world where I've ever been called a white man. They looked at my copper-brown skin and straight black hair - like my grandmother's Indian hair, except a little curly - and they said: You-white man."

It is difficult to imagine his disappointment. Looking to Africans with the hope of a connection and being totally labeled within the same category as the very people who wouldn't allow him in their bars and clubs back in the U.S.

I still have many pages to go, but it is just amazing to see West Africa through the eyes of a black traveler in the early 1920s and to see the similarities and differences compared to white travelers back then and even now.

It is also interesting to note that he was also one of many influences of Chinua Achebe.

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