Langston Hughes– A Poetic Prophet?

For my final time this semester, I sifted through the archives at the Johns Hopkins University, Sheridan Libraries. Relatively new, the Langston Hughes collection was not as large as those of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, but that doesn’t mean it was any less interesting. A sheen of mystery rested over a flier I found that connected him to a network of minority clubs/leagues. At the top “LANGSTON HUGHES” and directly under it in script that shows a certain amount of elegance “Poet…Playwright…Novelist”. Those three words that are used to describe Mr. Hughes are not necessarily unique to this poster, however, on either side of a the photo of adult Hughes, which is located in the middle of the large page,  the words “One of America’s Poetic Prophets for Justice Liberty and Equality” printed in similar script to the labels above. These words “Prophet for Justice, Liberty and Equality” indicate to me that this more than just poetry reading but a discussion of humanity. This would be unsurprising as Langston Hughes is known in history as one of the main thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. The poster is for a Langston Hughes Recital to take place on Friday, April 28, 1944 at the Urban League Bldg., 2030 T Street. The event was sponsored by the Urban League Men’s Club and admission was 50 cents (tax included). At the bottom of this off-white page you will find the various options of where you can buy the tickets, there are three locations. And despite the fact that there is seemingly a lot of information about this recital on this flier, here 74 years later, we know nothing about it. There is an address, yes, but there is no city indicated by this flier, leaving me now clueless.

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Flier for Langston Hughes Recital. 28 April, 1944. Langston Hughes Collection. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Daria Ramos-Izquierdo.

After doing various google searches in attempts to find where this place may be, I think it may be in Lincoln, Nebraska. The “Urban League” is not something that is unique to one city, it is something that is relatively widespread in the United States. This fact made me wonder if he did a tour of sorts at each of these Urban League’s Men Clubs. There is no indication that it was a male only event, however, as it was in the mid 1940s so it is quite possible that it was assumed to be as such. Another unanswered question.

Although it was a different time back then, I think people wouldn’t normally speak at niche clubs. But this was a regular occurrence for him. Performance poetry was not really something popular until the 1960s and even so, instead of reading at concert halls, he would speak at churches or town halls. Which sets a certain precedent for whom he liked to speak for. This represents a certain network of people for him. Although this Men’s Club is assumed to be in Lincoln, Nebraska, we can also assume that it is a primarily African-American or minority club. I say this only because it was 1944 and I don’t think that he would have been invited to perform at country clubs with the white upper class people. Despite his success, he continued to have these recitals with people in  working class communities. Similar to his recital in Nebraska which I am writing about, he had a recital in Dayton, Ohio with a Senior Women’s Church group in 1946, according to a paper program found in the Langston Hughes collection at the Sheridan Libraries. These recitals brought together a community of people that felt Langston Hughes was giving them a voice. It is evident that these people admired him just from the wording of the flier. They found any way possible to bring him in including charging admission. There is no way of knowing how much money was made or how many people were there. But if nothing else that is made clear by Hughes’s history, it is that people wanted to hear him. It is why he was successful in such a difficult time for African Americans and it is why he is still read now. He connected with every person that came to see him and that seems like a pretty good network to me.

 

 

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Influence of Langston on His Contemporaries

Langston Hughes first became popular during the 1920s during the Harlem Renaissance when African American artists were budding stars who promoted and pioneered African American cultural expression.  Hughes was one of the most important writers, thinkers, and social activists of this time. Hughes brought a common person perspective to the literary scene. His work resonated with many people because Hughes portrayed the humanity of everyday life. Hughes’ work influenced many artists of his time and was often celebrated for its encouragement to accept people’s varied ethnicities and heritages.  This can be observed in the many plays, performances, and readings that were inspired by Hughes’s work and that were performed while Hughes was still alive. One of which is the Stage Society’s production A Part of the Blues, A Musical Portrait of Langston Hughes.

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Cover page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.

The play was first performed in 1957 at the Stage Society Theater on Melrose Avenue. The performance is based on the life, work, and times of Langston Hughes. The show included two dozen of his major poems and 19 musical numbers. The playbill is printed on blue paper with dark blue ink, adding an additional visual component to the performance. The blue colors influence an attendees’ mood and set the tone for the deep, personal sounds of Hughes’s poetry and blues music.

Society Stage was a non-profit community theater in Los Angeles which quickly became very successful. After it’s achievement in its beginning years, the founders grew out of the experience and moved on to Broadway in New York. As a result, the theater started losing stamina. In 1951, new board members were elected and turned the theater around. In 1953, Society Stage moved to Melrose Avenue. The productions that were put on were new and innovative, something no one had seen before rather than the classics.  One of the many successful shows put on was A Part of the Blues. The Stage Society was known to be a great stepping stone for a lot of actors, producers, and directors. Often, people would work at the Stage Society before moving on to the big leagues of Hollywood. This was no exception for the people involved in the production of A Part of the Blues. Most of the players involved in this small scope network went on to have successful careers.

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Inside page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.

The network that this playbill and production represents is a very small survey of the community of artists who were inspired by Hughes and who performed, read, or participated in a production of his work while he was alive. All of the people involved in this network started out at Stage Society with A Part of the Blues and moved on to bigger projects. The director of the production, Walter Brough, has a long list of notable projects under his belt including Dr. Kildareand Mission Impossible.  Sylvia Lewis was the choreographer of the production. She was featured as a back-up dancer in Singing in the Rain. She also choreographed many television shows and appeared on some shows including The Dick Van Dyke Show. The cast includes Davis Roberts, Jackie Deslonde, Victor Cheltenham, and Magda Harout. Davis Roberts is known for his roles in Westworldand Star Trek. These contemporary artists of Hughes were able to achieve such success from their participation in and inspiration from Hughes’ work.

The playbill provides the names of most of the actors, musicians, directors, and other crew members involved with the production. However, it doesn’t name every person involved and doesn’t detail these participants’ backgrounds or relation to Langston Hughes. While other recourses including Archive Finder and Archive Grid provide insights into some of these people’s career, none of these resources provide a definite connection with Hughes and a person involved with the production. Hughes was alive when the production premiered.  However, it’s unknown if he knew about the production, saw the production, or knew anyone involved with the production.

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Back page, from Playbill: Stage Society production A Part of the Blues, a musical portrait of Langston Hughes, (Los Angeles: Directed by Walter Brough,1957). From the Sheridan Libraries,Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Julia Pacitti.

These gaps demonstrate the limits of literary archives. While literary archives are meant to allow access to primary sources including: letters, diaries, recordings, published works, manuscripts, and much more, they don’t always have every answer. Literary archives can be limiting in their information, not always being able to provide insight on the connection between different people, the events people attended, or even the works people wrote. It can be frustrating to not always find the answers your looking for, especially when literary archives provide so many answers to questions that arise in research.

Hughes touched artists everywhere and had a large influence over his contemporaries. This is a huge feat for an African American writer and activist.  Hughes’ influence on artists and their work can still be felt today and is enlivened by the continuous readings, productions, and performances inspired by him and his works.

Untitled, or Mistitled? A Study on Incomplete or Absent Poem Titles in Langston Hughes

When we read poetry, what do we analyze? The answer is almost too obvious: words. We read unique spellings, alliterations between words, phrases, patterns of words, and enjambment, but we also look to titles to tell us what the poem is or is not about. Even when poems are titled “Untitled,” we assume that the lack of a title speaks metaphorically to a characteristic of the poem’s content, and we read the poem differently. But what if we read a title that is not the poem’s real title? What if read a title that might not be the poem’s real title? What would it mean if the poem’s title changes? Or, more specifically, what would it mean if the poet changed the poem’s title, and what would it mean if someone else changed the poem’s title? We’ll get to explore some of these questions in the context of Langston Hughes’s poetry.

Before we dig into these inquiries, it feels important to first describe the physical item that raises these concerns. This item is a record recording on which Langston Hughes reads and comments on some of his poetry. If we refer to the Library of Congress code that is listed on the back (see photo below), we see that this item was released in 1955 by Folkways Records and Service, yet the listing on the LOC website says that the sound edition used for the recording was recorded in 1932. The Library of Congress guesses that this particular record was from 1961, which, of course, contradicts the release date on the record itself. How interesting! We also see—on the LOC website, but not on the record’s exterior itself—that A. A. Knopf, who published numerous authors and poets in Hughes’s personal and literary networks, was responsible for the original recording in 1932. The only place on this record on which this information appears is on the inside of the script book, in which a small, typewritten note says, “With poems from ‘The Dream Keeper’ Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.”

Detail of Record Case Binding, from Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper & Other Poems by Langston Hughes. (Folkways Records and Service Corp., 701 Seventh Ave., New York City. Distributed by Folkways/Scholastic Records. 906 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 07632, 1955). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

 

On the back of the record’s case, we see a complete track list that is not divided by side on which each poem appears, but that contains thirty tracks (see photo 2, below). If we read the list carefully, we can see that one of the titles appears twice: “Hold Fast to Dreams.” That’s an interesting detail to ponder, especially since it is not the record’s titular poem. Upon unboxing the record—whose protective sleeve has experienced some tearing along its edges and one of whose sides (B) has been partially burned, suggesting an item that has been thoroughly or frequently enjoyed—we see a somewhat uneven division of titles; side A contains six bands, while side B contains only four (see photos 3 and 4, below). Did the producers divide the tracks in this manner, or did Hughes? Lastly, the record’s transcript contains a textual representation of the poems that Hughes reads, but we quickly see that the poems are not separated or distinguished by title; they are, instead, recorded as if they were words in a speech. Almost in place of titles, twenty-seven tiny sketches—almost enough for one sketch per poem—fill the pages (see photo series below). These sketches suggest that the transcript was meant not just to be read alongside the recording, but to be enjoyed as a work of art in and of itself.

Detail of Record Case, from Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper & Other Poems by Langston Hughes. (Folkways Records and Service Corp., 701 Seventh Ave., New York City. Distributed by Folkways/Scholastic Records. 906 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 07632, 1955). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.
 Detail of Record Side A, from Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper & Other Poems by Langston Hughes. (Folkways Records and Service Corp., 701 Seventh Ave., New York City. Distributed by Folkways/Scholastic Records. 906 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 07632, 1955). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.
Detail of Record Side B, from Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper & Other Poems by Langston Hughes. (Folkways Records and Service Corp., 701 Seventh Ave., New York City. Distributed by Folkways/Scholastic Records. 906 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 07632, 1955). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

  

Details of Record Script Book, from Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper & Other Poems by Langston Hughes. (Folkways Records and Service Corp., 701 Seventh Ave., New York City. Distributed by Folkways/Scholastic Records. 906 Sylvan Ave., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 07632, 1955). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Abigail Rogers-Berner.

For a record that includes the textual, visual, and auditory approaches into Hughes’s work, the record is missing something very significant. In examining the script for the recording, even the newest of Hughes readers will notice a wide discrepancy between the titles of his poems and the titles of the poems that are listed in The Dream Keeper. Interestingly, of all thirty (or twenty-nine, if we exclude the repeated title) poems, not one poem has the same title as its corresponding poem in Hughes’s anthology The Dream Keeper. Some have similar names, such as this record’s “Hold Fast to Dreams,” whose text corresponds with the poem titled “Dreams” in The Dream Keeper, or “When Susanna Jones Wears Red,” whose text corresponds with “When Sue Wears Red,” or “I, Too, Sing America,” whose text corresponds with “I, Too.” It’s clear that, for whatever reason, Folkways published the first line of each poem as the title. Although it is difficult to know why Folkways Records made the decision to ignore the published titles (note: we will discuss this theory, and others, in more depth theories later in this study), it is possible that, because this piece is largely an auditory work, the company wanted to emphasize the auditory element of the reading, since the transcript reveals that Hughes does not verbally state the titles of the majority of the poems when he records himself for the record.

If that’s the case, what should we make of the moments in which Hughes explicitly states the poem’s title? Why, then, are the titles listed differently on the back? Did Folkways fail to listen to the recording and refer only to the transcript that Hughes wrote and provided? If so, did Folkways aim for titular consistency by titling each poem by its first line that Hughes reads? If not, did Folkways lack the motivation to look up the actual titles of the poems?

In this transcript, there are fifteen moments in which Hughes explains the backstory to his poems and even lists the titles themselves. Recall that there are thirty poems read on this record. Therefore, precisely half of the read poems have the actual titles listed in Hughes’s own voice and his own words with his own experiences, and Folkways still chose to ignore these moments. It was unlikely a malicious decision, albeit perhaps a lazy one. These fifteen titles, first as they appear on the record and then as they appear in the published book The Dream Keeper, are “The Spring is Not So Beautiful There”/”Water-Front Streets,” “The Sea is a Wilderness of Waves”/”Long Trip,” “Once You Were Young”/”Parisian Beggar Woman, “To Fling My Arms Wide”/”Dream Variation,” “I Have Known Rivers”/”The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Let’s Go See Old Abe”/”Lincoln Monument: Washington,” “Aunt Sue Has a Head Full of Stories”/”Aunt Sue’s Stories,” “It Was A Long Time Ago”/”As I Grow Older,” “I, Too, Sing America”/”I, Too,” “When Susanna Jones Wears Red”/”When Sue Wears Red,” “Let the Rain Kiss You”/”April Rain Song,” “Droning A Drowsy Syncopated Tune”/”The Weary Blues,” “Sun’s A Settin’”/”Hey!,” “Ma Lord Ain’t No Stuck-Up Man”/”Ma Lord,” and “We Have Tomorrow”/”Youth.” That I can discern, there is no commonality between the content of these poems that can explain for why Folkways would overlook the published titles and the titles that Hughes, himself, states during the narration of this record.

As we have seen, the record, the script book, the book of the poems’ origin, and even the Library of Congress do not offer information about the difference in title. Searching the internet also fails to produce sufficient answers. Fascinatingly, though, if we look up the record online for purchase, we see on the first link that the seller has manually relisted the poems by their published names. We see the same on Apple Music, although the title of “Danse Africaine” has been anglicized from French, there. Here, we can see a strength of the modern interactions with such works, which make it easier to know the actual titles without listening to the record.

I saw several unexpected elements in this study. One technical difference is a specific limit of the online catalog listing: it treats this record more as an artifact than as something to listen to, as Apple Music would, for example; we have no trouble seeing its highly-technical description of “p. 2 s. 10 in. 33 1/3 rpm. Microgroove,” but we have a lot more trouble getting to the bottom of certain stories within the artifact, such as how it is that the titles are listed so incorrectly or incompletely.

Along these lines was that the record itself—including its script, protective cover, track list, and illustrations—do not alert the Hughes listener to the changes that it has made to the titles; it simply lists the titles as the first lines of the poems, so someone entirely new to Hughes might not know that the titles listed on the back are not, in fact, the published titles of his poems. By not listing the original titles, the listener must either listen intently enough to Hughes’s reading of the poems to catch the title changes, but even so, Hughes only says the published titles half of the time, as discussed. Perhaps, in this way, Folkways (or even Hughes, himself) allowed the title changes because it would encourage higher engagement with the rest of Hughes’s works; maybe, if a listener of this record particularly enjoyed a poem that Hughes read aloud, she might speak about it with a friend, fail to remember the name or have to provide one of the changed names from the record’s track list, and thus, force the friend to engage with more of Hughes’s work in order to find the discussed track. Modern musicians sometimes use this strategy; they will add “Part II” to a song’s title even if there is no “Part I” so that, if the listener enjoys the song, she will look through the rest of the musician’s music to find “Part I,” and will therefore be exposed to the musician’s entire library. In this way, intentionally altering a song’s (or poem’s!) titles creates more confusion, and thus more discussion, and thus more sales.

We must consider that Hughes, himself, knew of the changes to the titles, and either suggested or agreed with them. If that were the case, the other theory that would make sense is the one that we already discussed: Folkways and Hughes knew the titles, but both wanted the record’s listener to focus on the poems themselves and the narration of Hughes’s voice more than the titles themselves, as we often expend great energy on titles when we read poetry. I like this theory, because it allows the record to emulate the listener’s being in a concert hall or Harlem club listening to Hughes reading the poems to us in one, continual stream, without our having programs or printed books or record covers with track lists right in front of us to distract us from the music of the poetry, read in Hughes’s voice. Where a reader of the book The Dream Keeper might focus heavily on the titles, a listener of this record might focus more on the poems themselves and on the imagined experience of Langston Hughes’s own voice reading the poems, back to back, to his eager listeners.

One final note: as stated, if Folkways and Hughes were both agreed on the changes to the published titles, we, as readers and listeners of Hughes, can support the idea that the changes to the record titles and the complete lack of explanation allows us to consume Hughes in a particular way—as listeners and readers, rather than just as readers—and we can enjoy the experience. However, we also need to return to the slight possibility that Hughes did not know that Folkways made these changes. In this case, the listener/reader should be alert to and concerned by the censorship or alteration of Hughes’s voice, and any political or racial implications to such changes.

Simply Heavenly

 

Simply Heavenly, a musical written by Langston Hughes, based on his novel Simple Takes a Wife, began its run in 1957, and is reflected in the Johns Hopkins archives in the form of a playbill, and what appears to be a neighborhood promotional pamphlet.

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Simply Heavenly program (front), Johns Hopkins Library, photo taken by Kiana Beckmen April 2018
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Simply Heavenly flyer, Johns Hopkins Library, photo taken by Kiana Beckmen April 2018

The play follows Jessie B. Simple, who raises funds to divorce his wife so that he can marry his love Joyce, but meanwhile, he can’t seem to resist the advances of Arcie, “the local man-eater.” The play is a struggle between temptation and responsibility, most of it fittingly taking place in Paddy’s bar, where African American patrons who either work to the bone or don’t work at all, and share a drink (or a few) and listen to the blues. The reigning queen of Paddy’s Bar is Mamie, a no-nonsense musical role created by Hughes specifically for Claudia McNeil, which began her illustrious career as a singer, dancer, and actor.

Like most of Hughes’s work, the musical paints a rich portrait of African American life and relationships, translating the influence of blues and jazz into a Guys and Dolls-like theatrical bonanza of miscommunications and romantic mishaps. Within this playful romance, Hughes infuses the painful realities of being black in the America of the early 20th century, both thematically and literally. In “The Flying Saucer Monologue,” Jess Simple says, “I’m broke busted and disgusted, and just spent mighty near my last nickel for a newspaper, and there ain’t no news in it about colored folk. Unless we commit murder, rape, robbery or is being chased by a mob do we get on the front page, or hardly on the back.” In his classic manner, Hughes created a musical fun and lighthearted enough to entertain people of all races, while still addressing the realities that his characters would face in the real world.

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Source: http://overtures.org.uk/?p=13666

The musical was well received, running for 169 performances before it opened in London in 1958. While in New York it had been marketed as “A New Musical Comedy,” or as the flyer which accompanies this playbill says, “a New Musical Folk Comedy,” the posters in London advertised it as “An All-Negro Musical.” In London, African American shows like “In Dahomey” (1903) and “Shuffle Along” (1921) hadn’t shaken up the theater scene yet, Harlem and “the Negro” wasn’t “in Vogue”[1] in England.

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http://overtures.org.uk/?p=13666

This playbill for “Simply Heavenly,” has some surprising features. For instance, fire warnings take up almost a half of the total surface area, beginning with a Fire Notice from the Fire Commissioner, and ending with a map of the exits of the theater. Apparently, Simply Heavenly first opened at the 85th St. Playhouse on May 21st 1957, which is the theater advertised in the promotional pamphlet. The production ended, however, when the Playhouse was condemned by the New York City Fire Department as a Fire Hazard. The show subsequently re-opened at the Playhouse Theater on West 48th St, featuring programs which emphasized fire safety and fire regulations. Clearly, the two articles of Simply Heavenly ephemera, though grouped together, are not from the same show. However, the two artifacts seem to target similar audiences. The promotional flyer was clearly a low-cost attempt to get the immediate community into the theater. The program for the show at The Playhouse on 48th St. is only one page, and has no advertisement material, as other examples do. It’s possible that the program may have been for a matinee, or another production with a reduced ticket price.

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Simply Heavenly program (back), Johns Hopkins Library, photo taken by Kiana Beckmen April 2018

There is much it is impossible to ascertain from these materials alone, but also from archives in general. Plays, in particular, are the result of endless collaborations between countless people, many of whom are not deemed important enough to be included in the archives of an institution or government. For instance, David Martin, who wrote and arranged the music, seems to have never worked on another production, and can’t be found anywhere in any archive. What was his relationship to Hughes? How long were they in correspondence, and how did Hughes choose him? The same questions can be asked of many of the actors in the show, even the leads. While whole collections are devoted to Claudia McNeil, who played Mamie, it’s impossible to find anything on Mel Stewart, who went on to make recordings of Hughes’ poetry, to teach the likes of Danny Glover and to work on movies like “Made in America” (1993) with Whoopi Goldberg. It is impossible to say exactly why some people’s work is chosen to archive and why others’ isn’t, and the situation varies from institution to institution,  but it is simply a fact that not everything can be saved– there isn’t enough space, labor or time. However, you never know what can emerge from an archive, what nuggets of knowledge end up hidden in files and written into margins. It is almost a guarantee that information you never imagined is hiding, ready to be found with just a bit of archival digging.

[1] Hughes, “The Big Sea” in The Langston Hughes Reader, 368. New York: Gerorge Braziller Inc.

Behind the Scenes: Background Actors of the Karamu Theater

The Karamu House Theater was founded in 1915 in Cleveland, Ohio by partners Russell and Rowena Jeliffe, who aimed to promote interracial activity in the community through performance. The city’s expanding African-American population necessitated a cultural outlet in which their transition from the rural South to industrialized urban localities could be facilitated. Langston Hughes was an alum from Cleveland’s Central High School and had taught art classes at the theater itself during his days as a student. Hughes was notably close to Rowena, whom he kept in touch with after leaving Cleveland and would thereafter assist him in revising works to stage in the theater; these theatrical artifacts hence instantiate the broad network of creatives, crew members, and personal friends that held ties to Hughes both professionally and through his early years in education.

In many ways, productions like that of the Karamu Theater were a return to community values for Hughes; not only was the institution’s very existence proximal to his childhood memories, but it also represented a vehicle through which Hughes could tell honest, desensationalized narratives about the people it served. Because of Karamu’s familiarization with Hughes, it also seems plausible that artifacts from these performances might bear an authorial bias in which Hughes’s involvement took center stage; after all, Karamu’s very history as an institution set forth aims to encourage artistic endeavor within a racial framework.

In staging his plays, Hughes sought to reclaim the cultural forms of his people and redeem these black stories in a manner that resisted the conventional portrayal of African-American migrants as unrefined and incompatible with urban life. One of these works included Troubled Island, which chronicled the rise and fall of leader Jean Jacques Dessalines during the Haitian Revolution; it reflected the diasporic and pan-African perspectives that were widely percolating at the time among the intellectual and artistic circles of New York.

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Front of Playbill for production of Troubled Island at the Karamu Theater. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kain Kim.

This archival item depicts the playbill for the Karamu production of Troubled Island, estimated to have been staged around 1936. The playbill presents an immediate stark contrast to our modern Broadway equivalent, which is often lavish with eye-catching images, stylized text, and adverts. Karamu’s version is visually austere, offering a distinct lack of embellishment save for a vaguely hieroglyphic bordering on the title page, reminiscent of some ethnic patterning or ancient language. Printed on mustard-beige paper, the playbill’s contents include basic information about the play and its staging (location, showing times/dates) on the title page, a list of the play’s characters and the actors that portrayed them, a sequence of the play’s acts, a brief acknowledgement to set and lighting crew members, and adverts for other play showings and a neighboring crafts shop, a brief history of the theater, and an invitation to join their mailing list. All of the above are delineated in text; no images or illustrations are shown, with the exception of a smaller leaflet diagramming a schematic of the theater and its exits. The conspicuous lack of images denote a general textual foregrounding; the playbill’s recipient is somewhat forced to consume these dense blocks of print in order to contextualize the work. We might speculate that such implicitly roots the play’s identity as one attuned to language above all else, at least in regards to other factors of theatrical production like set design, music, etc. In so doing, it serves a function in which the audience is reminded of the play’s authorship and the task of bringing a story to life through words.

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Inside of Playbill. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kain Kim.
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Back of Playbill. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kain Kim.

There exists a clear dearth of representation in this artifact when it comes to visualization of set construction, costumes, or props. Through ArchiveGrid on the Historical Primary Source guide of the Sheridan Libraries, I was able to find a collection from the Western Reserve Historical Society, consisting of 1,357 black-and-white photographs taken at Karamu House from 1915 to 1972. These photographs allegedly include “individual and group portraits” of “administrators and staff, actors and performers, and community figures.” Such images and representations of subsidiary roles and accomplishments in the play’s production therefore do exist; why, then, were they not included in the playbill? Have playbills’ designs evolved to accommodate the expanding genre of the play, which became less dependent on the narrative form and seized upon entertainment as its primary objective? Or, on the contrary, was it the original intention of the playbill’s creator to leave these persons unarchived, and these absences thus a consequence of historical prejudice? Could we attribute these discrepancies to Karamu’s goals as an institution dedicated to lending black voices greater authenticity, which might result in an a spotlighting of the role of the African-American playwright?

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Schematic of theater exits. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Kain Kim.

In honing in on Troubled Island’s preoccupation with print, we are able to see how this archive diminishes, however inadvertently, the supplementary efforts that aided in making tangible this particular narrative. These gaps in representation suggest that historical conventions or bias at the time dictated a decentralizing of focus away from the sets and design of plays; alternatively, perhaps the current archive is shaped by a reverent magnification of the author who inspired it, resulting in an omission of any non-literary investments. On the whole, it is apparent that as a result, we may tend to monumentalize the messages these archives potentially afford, rather than the process of actualizing these messages. Then again, however, such absences spur commendable efforts at restoring attention to design and the corrective process; this explains our fixation with tracking intention in literary archives through multiple editions, manuscripts, and proofs. In any case, if these absences reflect Karamu as an institution, it just as well materializes the palpable closeness of its organizational mission to Hughes; between these printed lines we can sense community values, the intimacy of creation.

 

Out of Africa: Langston Hughes and the American Committee on Africa at Carnegie Hall, April 15th, 1959

A successful African American poet, playwright and novelist, Langston Hughes fiercely advocated for civil rights, championing racial consciousness and unity among people of African descent. His desire for African Americans to take pride in their culture manifested itself in multiple ways, including his eventual involvement in the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), an organization founded in 1953 to support the liberation of African countries from colonialist powers. On April 15th, 1959, the ACOA hosted Africa Freedom Day at Carnegie Hall. Hughes was one of the featured artists, reading a selection referred to as  “Poems on Africa”. He autographed the cover of a program from the event, which features the interior of Carnegie Hall.

 

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Exterior cover of program (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]) for special single-evening production, Africa Freedom Day, that Langston Hughes signed, captioned, and dated. Small quarto, pictorial self-wrappers, several separately printed inserts. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.

Hughes’s presence at African Freedom Day points to the community that worked with him to use his poetry as a force to create change in the civil rights movement. Analysis of the contents of the program along with the presence of Hughes’s autograph reveal the closeness of the ACOA with its benefactors and Hughes’s own prominence among both white and black Americans, creating a sort of love triangle between the two groups with Hughes at the center.

Interior of the program for Africa Freedom Day (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]). From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photographs by Sherry Simkovic.

Founded in New York City in 1953, the ACOA represents a moment in history where both African American and white civil rights activists worked closely to tackle segregation and racism in the United States. George Houser, a white prominent Methodist minister and proponent of the Civil Rights Movement, along with Donald S. Harrington, another white preacher dedicated to social justice, and Bayard Rustin, an African American leader dedicated to fighting for both civil and gay rights, all worked together to establish the ACOA. A list of sponsors for Africa Freedom Day is displayed in the program, which includes notables such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Dr. Leona Baumgartner, as well as Dr. John Haynes Holmes.

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List of sponsors located in the interior of the program (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]). From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.

The composition of that list reflects the aforementioned combined efforts of white and black Americans to combat racial injustice. Attached to the program, presumably by its unidentified original owner, is a brochure containing information about the ACOA and an RSVP card that reads,

“I hereby contribute a sum of $…. (check payable to American Committee on Africa) to Africa Freedom Day celebration for the following designations…”

The receiver of the invitation was then able to check off what seats they desired at Carnegie Hall. At the bottom of the card, the organizers of the event offered an option for those unable to attend Africa Freedom Day: “I cannot attend, but enclose my contribution of $…. for the American Committee on Africa’s program of education and public information.”

Interior of the program for Africa Freedom Day (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]) featuring seperately printed brochure on the ACOA and a blank reservation card. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.

The appearance of the reservation card in conjunction with the list of sponsors suggests that the nature of the connection between white benefactors and the ACOA was prone to turn fiscally focused. Langston Hughes’s presence at such an event is indicative of the lucrativeness of his appearance. The ACOA utilized the way in which the white public viewed Hughes. The organizers assumed that people would attend the event and pay decent amounts of money for tickets to watch the great Langston Hughes perform. The fact that a member of the audience found Hughes after the event was over and asked him to sign the program is a testament to the trueness of this assumption. Additionally, the condition of the program, it’s in pristine condition, indicates that it was considered valuable by the owner. Hughes was not the only performer at Africa Freedom Day. William Warfield, an African American opera singer and actor, performed one of Hughes’s poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”.

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Interior of the program for Africa Freedom Day (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]). List of performers is shown including William Warfield performing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes (1921). From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.

Warfield and Hughes are contemporaries of each other. For him to have chosen a Hughes poem, then, is significant because it demonstrates the reverence that the black community had for Hughes. The contents of the program, then, carve out this love triangle between the AOCA and its benefactors and the African American literary community.

While the program elucidates the depths of Hughes’s network within both white and black communities, it still leaves a piece of the network in shadow. When describing Hughes’s performance, the program reads “Langston Hughes, accompanist: Sam Phills”.

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Interior of the program from Africa Freedom Day (New York: Carnegie Hall [American Committee on Africa presents Africa Freedom Day]) showing a list of performers, including Langston Hughes reading “Poems on Africa” accompanied by Sam Phills. From the Sheridan Libraries, The Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Sherry Simkovic.

The language of the program neither indicates the type of accompaniment that occurred, nor does it reveal anything about Phills. A search on the internet came up blank – it seems impossible to identify the mysterious Sam Phills. The program, and the archive on a more general level, cannot completely replace the lived experience of attending Africa Freedom Day in 1959. It cannot recreate the atmosphere and reproduce the knowledge gleamed from attending the event in its entirety. An audience member from that day could potentially answer the questions of who Sam Phills is (or was) and what poems Hughes read. The program itself, however, cannot. Without more material, the details of Africa Freedom Day 1959 remain nebulous.

Ezra Pound Mansplaining the U.S.’s Problems: A Letter

Front cover and second page of Typed Letter from Ezra Pound to Harry Hansen. 23 January,1928. Frary collection. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Daria Ramos-Izquierdo.

It is not a secret that Ezra Pound was a fascist and an anti-semite. Although these two belief systems are not evident in his early poetry, as expected, his views come into focus in his personal correspondence. Among the manuscripts and personal correspondence in the Frary Collection at the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University, I found a typed letter from Ezra Pound to Harry Hansen, sent the 23rd of January, 1928 that reveals Pound’s strong feelings about reform of the United States government.

The letter is held in a black fabric folder with embossed words on the cover. The words say “Ezra Pound—4PP TLS to Mr. Hansen Resubsidizing Writers and Complaints about America” 23 January 1928”. This to me, indicated a certain importance because comparatively, this was the only one with a special folder. The letter itself has each page preserved in a plastic cover, another indication of its importance. The letter head is from Rapallo which is in Italy and where Ezra spent a great deal of his time as a writer before being arrested for treason and put in a mental institution. Reasons which become more and more evident as you read this letter. Each page is typed but on some pages, Ezra had made corrections by hand, affirming its personalization. The signature on the last page is rather large and exuberant signature. It is actually more of an autograph than anything, like if you asked a celebrity to sign something for you. Ezra Pound certainly thought highly of himself and it shows from his handwriting and from his tone in his writing. And although condescending the language that he uses can be amusing, it’s also rude and not fun for anyone to be talked at. On the other hand, he creates words, making his letter unique. Words such as “goddamnability” and “assininities” are used frequently within the letter. Because he use the colloquialism it gives the reader a sense that perhaps the letter was addressed in familiarity. However, as I said before he does have a rather condescending tone when he writes. A new common term that I think could be used here is “mansplaining.” If you are unfamiliar with this term it is probably because it only became popular recently. It has become so popular in fact that Merriam-Webster has now recognized it as a word as of March 2018. “Mansplaining” is just as it sounds, it is when a man thinks he knows better than everyone else so he takes it upon himself to explain what it means in a condescending tone or matter. You can read more about the trend in this article from the Merriam-Webster website. I would say that Ezra Pound is the original Mansplainer but I think that would be giving him too much credit. This has been a tradition long preceding Pound, he just happens to be an archetype, and this letter, a simple example. And perhaps an example that closely aligns with his ideals shared in his letter to Harry Hansen is a transcript of a shortwave broadcast from December 7, 1941. Also in the Frary Collection, this transcript shares the very strong opinions that Pound has in his letter to Hansen except it was a radio broadcast directed toward a large amount of people in Europe and North America. This transcript is much lengthier than the letter and goes further into his anti-semitic and fascist views rather than simply focusing on the impediment of the government on writing and publishing, like in his letter.

 

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Transcript of Shortwave Broadcast. 7 December, 1941. Frary collection. From the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University. Photograph by Daria Ramos-Izquierdo.

This letter struck my interest for many reasons starting with the fact that I did not know who Harry Hansen was. This gives the letter a sheen of mystery to me. After further research, I found that Harry Hansen was an American Journalist. Hansen lived from the years 1884-1977 and spent most of that time in Chicago but was a War Correspondent during World War I. He was widely known in the Chicago area and wrote for the Chicago Daily News as well as staring his own periodical called The Chicago. If you would like to know more information about him you can find that here . But what struck me further about this letter is that Hansen is not mentioned in the in depth biography by Alec Marsh, entitled “Pound”. This indicates to me that Ezra’s reach is actually further than I, or my fellow Pound researchers had expected. However, I shouldn’t be surprised because Pound did what he could to make sure that his voice was heard in whatever capacity possible. And after going through all of the possibilities, I think it is most likely that this letter was reaching out to Hansen in hopes that Hansen would use his influence to get the changes that Pound wanted to implement in the United States, implemented. The policies that Pound is mostly focusing in on are the encroachment of the government on print. His first point is to reform copyright law and then goes into his issues with Bureaucracy. He even complains about passports. I think he simply wanted to restart a new government, and from the transcript of the radio broadcast those few years later, I believe it to be a fascist government, with the comments he make about finance and the economy. However, he not only points out the issues that he believes needs to be changed but also then goes into the explanation for the change, making each point more than a sentence but a paragraph long. This is where his mansplaining becomes most prominent. It’s like when you ask a question and want an answer but end up getting a monologue. I believe these two artifacts, the transcript and the letter are that monologue answer.