February 1, 2015
Langston Hughes’ 113th Birthday
What does “I Dream A World” mean to you? To doodler Katy Wu, Langston Hughes’ poem is a message of equality and hope. “This poem has a hopeful message and I like that. It comes from a time where there was a lot of work to be done for civil rights,” says Katy. That’s a sentiment Hughes also shared when writing his poem, which first originated as a lyric in the the opera Troubled Island by William Grant Still. As Hughes experienced and witnessed the failings of his society, he never lost the desire and belief that a better world would eventually appear.
But Hughes’ era was also filled with passion and cultural innovation, characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance and a source for Wu’s inspiration. She looked to the soulful artwork that adorned 1930s-40s Jazz albums for her design. The doodle’s music, serving as a tour guide through each verse of the poem, features Adam Ever-Hadani on the piano and the The Boston Typewriter Orchestra, a 6 member musical ensemble that make music using manual typewriters.
As the poem and music flowed together, Wu used it to influence for her drawings, ultimately leading her to the streets of Manhattan and Harlem–which make vital cameos in the doodle and anchor the spirit of “I Dream a World” to Hughes’ roots.
Arnold Rampersad, Stanford University:
Back in 1979, a chance meeting with a stranger at a concert near Boston changed my life forever. The stranger was George Houston Bass, the executor of Langston Hughes’s estate, who soon invited me to write Langston’s biography. The Life of Langston Hughes (2 vols.) eventually appeared, along with about a dozen other works such as Hughes’s Complete Poems (1994) and Selected Letters (2015). As I pored over the thousands of documents Hughes left behind, I was soon enthralled by his genius, his exacting artistic principles, and his passion for social justice for African Americans and, indeed, for all people everywhere. Versatile as a writer, he published more than a dozen books of poetry, as well as many volumes of fiction, drama, autobiography, and other forms. Hughes embraced both the rare promise and the flawed reality of America. “Hold fast to dreams!” he urged young people in a 1920s poem, but he also asked again and again the American question of questions: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun? . . . Or does it explode?” Langston was an American original—endearing, touching, and often tender, but also fundamentally tough, caustic, and prophetic. To serve him as a scholar has been nothing short of a privilege.