Monthly Archives: February 2014

Discovering Langston and the Historical Dialectic

Beaumont, TX and Detroit, MI, were the locations of two “race riots” in a series of pogroms that swept the land from May 12 to August 29, 1943, at the height of U.S. involvement in WW II. Here’s a Langston Hughes poem from 1943. It’s a good example of Hughes’s ability to write to immediate social and political events. It holds special relevance for me because I grew up hearing about how my family had to directly respond to the “war at home” in my hometown of Beaumont. Never forget John Johnson (black) and Ellis Brown (white) who died from attacks during the “night of terror.” Here’s the poem:

Beaumont to Detroit: 1943

Looky here, America
What you done done–
Let things drift
Until the riots come.

Now your policemen
Let your mobs run free
I reckon you don’t care
Nothing about me.

You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
from the ku klux klan.

You tell me mussolini’s
Got an evil heart.
Well, it mus-a been in Beaumont
That he had his start–

Cause everything that hitler
And mussolini do,
Negroes get the same
Treatment from you.

You jim crowed me
Before hitler rose to power–
And you’re STILL jim crowing me
Right now, this very hour.

Yet you say we’re fighting
For democracy.
Then why don’t democracy
Include me?

I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight

One might consider this poem alongside the Pisan Cantos, or the poems from Trilogy, or Moore’s “In Distrust of Merits,” How does it expand our idea of the range of poetic responses to WW II? Note Hughes’ novel orthographic interventions–Mussolini being uncapitalized, the lower-case “j” in Jim Crow as well as the “k” in ku klux klan. The African American English (e.g., “mus-a been”) in the poem is another area ripe for study.*

For further investigation

An indie film was made based on the 1943 events, The Example: Historical Fiction Film (2016).

About AAE, see Lisa J. Green’s book African American English: A Linguistic Introduction (2002).

Also, see this video for a brief introduction to AAE