A Raleigh Scholar Proves the Influence of Langston Hughes’s Poetry on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Rhetoric | Reading | Indy Week
Pin It

A Raleigh Scholar Proves the Influence of Langston Hughes’s Poetry on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Rhetoric 

4.6_page_jason-miller.jpg

Langston Hughes is now most widely known in the context of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, which draws its title from Hughes's "Harlem." The poem asks, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? ... Or does it explode?"

But, as N.C. State associate professor W. Jason Miller's new book, Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric (University Press of Florida), reminds us, Hughes had a wider impact. Miller demonstrates the profound influence Hughes's poems exerted on the letters, sermons, speeches, and ideas of Martin Luther King Jr. If the influence of Mahatma Gandhi helped King shape his vision of nonviolent resistance, then Hughes's poetry helped him articulate it to the masses.

Miller, the author of a previous study of Hughes, makes this case with archival sources and analysis of King's copious writing. In a 1960 visit to Durham's White Rock Baptist Church, King drew a vivid phrase from "Harlem" to decry "the festering sore of segregation" in the state. The opening lines of Hughes's "Youth" resonate with the tone of civil rights leaders, calling for optimism amid continual struggle: "We have tomorrow/ Bright before us/ Like a flame." In a dozen years, King cited the poem nearly six dozen times.

But King didn't simply quote Hughes. Instead, he riffed, deliberately modifying the poems to suit his rhetorical situation and the political climate. As Miller puts it, King "transposes, extends, blurs, and ... recasts" his sources. Without saying it outright, the author portrays King as Hughes's protégé, which marks him as one of the most important mid-century American poets.

Hughes and King's unspoken collaboration, Miller argues, stands as "the twentieth century's most visible integration of poetry and politics." For anyone following politics today, there's no doubt that he's right. It's impossible to read the words of Hughes and King without cringing at how far politics has drifted from poetry. Is anything less imaginable in 2016—a year of insults, doggerel, and patent falsehoods—than a candidate waxing poetic?

The most powerful argument in Origins of the Dream goes unstated: political speech blossoms when it isn't simply political. Without a little poetry—which, according to Auden, "makes nothing happen"—perhaps a little too much happens.

King, cribbing Hughes, wrote, "The clock on the wall read almost midnight, but the clock in our souls revealed that it was daybreak." Between these words and Trump's recent claim to "have the best words," the border between politics and anything lyrical seems to have been sealed with a fifty-foot wall.

This article appeared in print with the headline "A Dream Conferred."

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in Reading



Twitter Activity

Comments

Our community is indeed fortunate that LaVare's House provides a supportive living environment for LGBTQIA folk in recovery.

by Larry W Clubine on LaVare’s House Is a Much-Needed Durham Haven for LGBTQIA People in Addiction Recovery (Reading)

Find out more about LaVare's House and the LaVare Leith Foundation at www.llfnc.org

by Daniel Wilson on LaVare’s House Is a Much-Needed Durham Haven for LGBTQIA People in Addiction Recovery (Reading)

Most Recent Comments

Our community is indeed fortunate that LaVare's House provides a supportive living environment for LGBTQIA folk in recovery.

by Larry W Clubine on LaVare’s House Is a Much-Needed Durham Haven for LGBTQIA People in Addiction Recovery (Reading)

Find out more about LaVare's House and the LaVare Leith Foundation at www.llfnc.org

by Daniel Wilson on LaVare’s House Is a Much-Needed Durham Haven for LGBTQIA People in Addiction Recovery (Reading)

Another great interview, Sam!!

by Eryk Pruitt on Love and Biotech Coexist in Jeff VanderMeer's Borne (Reading)

letters and soda: morons express themselves much as you have, my dear..ron belin

by Ron J Belin on That Ryan Adams has a poetry book says a lot about us ... and too much about him (Reading)

investigate exactly the extent and volume of ryan adams show music one can listen to, free of cost, and you …

by Ron J Belin on That Ryan Adams has a poetry book says a lot about us ... and too much about him (Reading)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation