July 14, 2004

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Contact: Mary Jane Dunlap, University Relations, (785) 864-8853.

Langston Hughes: This year's 'comeback kid'

LAWRENCE, Kan. --When Sen. John Kerry began quoting Langston Hughes' 'Let America Be America' poem this spring, Maryemma Graham, co-director of the Langston Hughes National Poetry Project at the University of Kansas, could not have been more pleased.

Graham has worked with others at KU since 2001 to rekindle interest in Hughes' legacy as America's premier public poet and in the power of poetry. Hughes (1902-1967) lived in Lawrence and Topeka during his childhood. In 2002, Graham and her colleagues hosted a four-day international symposium on the centennial of Hughes' birth that took its title from the same poem that appealed to Kerry, "Let America Be America Again."

Kerry's use of poetry in his campaign rhetoric is an example of the power of poetry and of poetry as public art, Graham said. Hughes himself would read his poetry on street corners in Harlem.

"We have discovered reading Hughes is as much a public act as a private one," Graham said. "He appeals to audiences of all generations, races and nations, and interest in his work cuts across socioeconomic lines.

"With the symposium and the national poetry project, we challenged the dominant view of poetry as elitist, incomprehensible or unappealing to ordinary people. Kerry's use of Hughes' poetry brings it home."

With National Endowment for the Humanities funding, Graham and her co-director, Barbara Watkins in KU Continuing Education, launched the Langston Hughes National Poetry Project at KU to expand discussions evolving from the 2002 symosium. Officially titled "Speaking of Rivers: Taking Poetry to the People," the project received a second grant in 2003 to support 20 sites nationally and a Web site with resources for teachers and students as well as a Continuing Education credit course on Hughes. For a list of upcoming events see www.kuce.org/hughes.

"When Hughes wrote, he looked inside the nation that was often pretentious and insensitive to its diverse members, and he would not mince words," Graham said. "Here is a writer who grew up in Lawrence and took his vision out to the world."

Hughes' death in 1967 was barely mentioned in the Lawrence newspaper. But on his 100th birthday anniversary, Graham, a professor of English, and Bill Tuttle, professor of American studies, gathered support locally and nationally to create a homecoming celebration for Hughes that drew national attention and a half-dozen awards.

Describing Hughes' poetry as a gift to the American people, Graham said, "Today's audiences rarely experience the power of the printed word in poetic form. Our project seeks to reclaim the preeminence of poetry in our lives, to reconnect poetry to its social and cultural function."

Upcoming Langston Hughes National Poetry Project events include

 • Lawrence -- Aug. 15 discussion of "The Best of Simple" by Hughes, hosted by the Ninth Street Baptist and St. Luke AME churches in Lawrence. On Nov. 21 the two churches will host a discussion of Hughes' first autobiography, "The Big Sea."

 • Wichita -- Aug. 20 national poetry project workshop with Kalamu ya Salaam, New Orleans, at the Atwater Neighborhood City Hall, 2755 E. 19th St.

 • East Elmhurst, N.Y. -- August through September, a four- to six-week discussion series with young adults on Hughes' writings with poet David Mills in the Langston Hughes Community Library.

 • Seattle -- September begins a two-year book club reading of Hughes' work for an adult group and a teenage group at the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center.

Additional resources include:

The Langston Hughes Collection in KU's Spencer Research Library contains more than 300 pieces. The Hughes collection includes an autographed publication with a 1933 photo of Hughes, taken during a visit to the Soviet Union, and a scarce volume of the first issue of the journal "Fire!" containing work by Hughes and African-American artist Aaron Douglas. KU libraries began collecting publications, books, manuscripts, sound recordings and other examples of Hughes memorabilia in the 1950s.

KU's Spencer Museum of Art owns a portfolio of six prints by Douglas made in collaboration with Hughes for Opportunity magazine.

Langston Hughes in Lawrence
There is an elementary school named for Hughes.
Words from a Hughes poem are inscribed on the walls of Lawrence's City Hall:

"We have tomorrow
Bright before us
Like a flame."

This Web site lists all the historic Hughes locations in town:
www.ci.lawrence.ks.us/local_history/lh_index.shtml

LANGSTON HUGHES
Born in Joplin, Mo., Hughes grew up in Lawrence and finished high school in Cleveland, Ohio. After spending a year in Mexico with his father, Hughes moved to New York City and enrolled at Columbia University. He graduated a decade later from all-black Lincoln University. Hughes became involved in a literary revolution known as the Harlem (New Negro) Renaissance.

For most of his adult life, Hughes identified with New York, where he lived, wrote and died. His first poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," established Hughes as the voice of his era and epitomized the humanistic values that he honored throughout his life.

Over the next 50 years, Hughes established himself as an internationally renowned poet, experimenting with a wide variety of folk forms and idioms. Hughes published 45 books, which included two autobiographies and two novels. His first novel, "Not Without Laughter," is set in Lawrence and was translated into more than eight languages.

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