February 2, 2013

February's Featured Poet: Langston Hughes

Short bio thanks to Poets.org:

James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a small child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois, that Hughes began writing poetry. Following graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia University. During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Today's Poem:  Night Funeral in Harlem

Night funeral
     In Harlem:

     Where did they get
     Them two fine cars?

Insurance man, he did not pay—
His insurance lapsed the other day—
Yet they got a satin box
for his head to lay.

     Night funeral
     In Harlem:

     Who was it sent
     That wreath of flowers?

Them flowers came
from that poor boy's friends—
They'll want flowers, too,
When they meet their ends.

     Night funeral 
     in Harlem:

     Who preached that
     Black boy to his grave?

Old preacher man
Preached that boy away—
Charged Five Dollars
His girl friend had to pay.

     Night funeral
     In Harlem:

When it was all over
And the lid shut on his head
and the organ had done played 
and the last prayers been said 
and six pallbearers
Carried him out for dead
And off down Lenox Avenue
That long black hearse done sped,
     The street light 
     At his corner
     Shined just like a tear—
That boy that they was mournin'
Was so dear, so dear
To them folks that brought the flowers,
To that girl who paid the preacher man—
It was all their tears that made
     That poor boy's
     Funeral grand.

     Night funeral
     In Harlem.


This is such a powerful poem.  I dare anyone to not be affected by that.  It says "Harlem" but it could just as easily be a funeral in "suburbia U.S.A."   The most powerful funeral I have ever attended has been my father's so when I read this, that is what I thought of- his funeral.  The long black hearse that carried him to the cemetery as we followed behind.  The flowers from friends and family.  The extraordinary costs of having a funeral.  All to say goodbye to someone we love- to honor their lives and to help us, the ones left behind, say goodbye.  Powerful.


  1. Langston Hughes is one of my favorite poets. Thanks for remembering him.

    1. Mine, too. :) I will be posting at least one poem a week throughout the month.

  2. Hughes is also one of my favorite poets-I read a bunch of his poems in school and it was one of the few assigned readings I didn't hate. I'm looking forward to revisiting his work with you this month.

  3. Hughes is definitely one of the best American poets.


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