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I Wonder as I Wander
An Autobiographical Journey
By Langston Hughes
Hill and WangCopyright © 1984 George Houston Bass
All rights reserved.
IN SEARCH OF SUN
LESS THAN LYRIC
WHEN I was twenty-seven the stock-market crash came. When I was twenty-eight, my personal crash came. Then I guess I woke up. So, when I was almost thirty, I began to make my living from writing. This is the story of a Negro who wanted to make his living from poems and stories.
For ten years I had been a writer of sorts, but a writer who wrote mostly because, when I felt bad, writing kept me from feeling worse; it put my inner emotions into exterior form, and gave me an outlet for words that never came in conversation.
Now I found myself in the midst of a depression. I had just lost my patron. Scholarships, fellowships and literary prizes became scarce. I had already gotten several awards that were not to be had a second time. Jobs were very hard to find. The WPA had not yet come into being. If I were to live and write, at all, since I did not know how to do anything else, I had to make a living from writing itself. So, of necessity, I began to turn poetry into bread.
But this earning of bread did not come about in easy direct steps. First, it was Mary McLeod Bethune who suggested to me that I travel through the South reading my poems. And my conversations with Mary McLeod Bethune came about because I went to Haiti.
I went to Haiti to get away from my troubles. I had intended to go from Cleveland, where I spent Christmas with my mother, to Key West by bus, thence to Cuba and Haiti. But in Cleveland, I met at Karamu House a fellow named Zell Ingram who was going to the Cleveland School of Art, but who did not like it, so he wanted to quit classes and travel. He borrowed his mother's car; she gave him three hundred dollars, and we set out. I had three hundred dollars left from the Harmon Award granted me for my novel, Not Without Laughter, having given my mother one hundred of the four-hundred-dollar grant. On a morning in March, Zell and I began our journey to the South.
As soon as I got rid of the last dollar of the money left from my estranged patron's allowances, I felt immensely better. My stomach, that for weeks had turned over and over since my relations with the kind and elderly lady on Park Avenue had ended so abruptly, now stopped turning over altogether.
I came out of college in 1929, the year of the Stock Market crash and the beginning of the Great Depression. I had written my first novel, Not Without Laughter, as a student on the campus of Lincoln University. I had had a scholarship to college. After graduation a monthly sum from my patron enabled me to live comfortably in suburban New Jersey, an hour from Manhattan, revising my novel at leisure. Propelled by the backwash of the "Harlem Renaissance" of the early 'twenties, I had been drifting along pleasantly on the delightful rewards of my poems which seemed to please the fancy of kindhearted New York ladies with money to help young writers. The magazines used very few stories with Negro themes, since Negro themes were considered exotic, in a class with Chinese or East Indian features. Editorial offices then never hired Negro writers to read manuscripts or employed them to work on their staffs. Almost all the young white writers I'd known in New York in the 'twenties had gotten good jobs with publishers or magazines as a result of their creative work. White friends of mine in Manhattan, whose first novels had received reviews nowhere nearly so good as my own, had been called to Hollywood, or were doing scripts for the radio. Poets whose poetry sold hardly at all had been offered jobs on smart New York magazines. But they were white. I was colored. So in Haiti I began to puzzzle out how I, a Negro, could make a living in America from writing.
There was one other dilemma-how to make a living from the kind of writing I wanted to do. I did not want to write for the pulps, or turn out fake "true" stories to sell under anonymous names as Wallace Thurman did. I did not want to bat out slick non-Negro short stories in competition with a thousand other commercial writers trying to make The Saturday Evening Post. I wanted to write seriously and as well as I knew how about the Negro people, and make that kind of writing earn for me a living.
I thought, with the four hundred dollars my novel had given me, I had better go sit in the sun awhile and think, having just been through a tense and disheartening winter after a series of misunderstandings with the kind lady who had been my patron. She wanted me to be more African than Harlem — primitive in the simple, intuitive and noble sense of the word. I couldn't be, having grown up in Kansas City, Chicago and Cleveland. So that winter had left me ill in my soul. I could not put my mind on writing for months. But write I had to — or starve — so I went to sit in the sun and gather my wits.
In Cleveland that winter it had been cold and damp, and it looked as though spring had no intention of coming. I knew it would be warm in Haiti. When Zell and I reached North Carolina, we were already out of the snow belt. And, speeding down the Florida coast, we met the sun, friendly and warm.
We stopped at Daytona Beach to visit Bethune-Cookman College of which that most distinguished of Negro women, Mary McLeod Bethune, was president. We reached Daytona about eight o'clock in the evening. It took us some time to find the campus. When we did, we stopped before the first building where we saw lights burning. It was warm, so the doors and windows were all open. We heard a group of girls singing in a second-floor room. Zell went upstairs to inquire the way to Mrs. Bethune's home. As a teacher answered his knock on the classroom door, I heard the singing stop. Then I heard a woman's voice exclaim, "No more class tonight, girls — the poet, Langston Hughes, is here!"
I was struck dumb with shyness. I had no idea my name would be known in Florida — other than to Mrs. Bethune herself whom I had once met at Columbia University. Some of the students came running down the stairs, followed by the teacher, and I was greeted with open arms. We were shown to Mrs. Bethune's house across the campus where she welcomed us graciously, although she was not forewarned of our visit. Food was prepared and a guest room put at our disposal. But before I went to bed I sat for a long time on the front porch talking to Mrs. Bethune, motherly and kind and wise as she was toward me, a very puzzled young man.
The next day I read some of my poems to the English classes on her campus. That was the beginning of my learning how to make a living from writing — for it was Mrs. Bethune who said to me the night before, "Why don't you tour the South reading your poems? Thousands of Negro students would be proud and inspired by seeing you and hearing you. You are young, but you have already made a name for yourself in literary circles, and you can help black students to feel that a Negro youth can amount to something in this world in spite of our problems."
I kept thinking about what Mrs. Bethune said as I drove southward down the long straight Florida road toward Miami.
IN Miami, Zell and I put the Ford in a garage. We went by rail to Key West, thence by boat to Cuba. It was suppertime when we got to El Moro with Havana rising white and Moorish-like out of the sea in the twilight. The evening was warm and the avenues were alive with people, among them many jet-black Negroes in white attire. Traffic filled the narrow streets, auto horns blew, cars' bells clanged, and from the wineshops and fruit-juice stands radios throbbed with drumbeats and the wavelike sounds of maracas rustling endless rumbas. Life seemed fluid, intense, and warm in the busy streets of Havana.
Our hotel was patronized mostly by Cubans from the provinces, with huge families. Its inner balconies around an open courtyard were loud with the staccato chatter of stout mamas and vivacious children. Its restaurant on the first floor — with the entire front wall open to the street — was as noisy as only a Cuban restaurant can be, for, added to all the street noises, were the cries of waiters and the laughter of guests, the clatter of knives and forks, and the clinking of glasses at the bar.
I liked this hotel because, since tourists never came there, the prices were on the Cuban scale and low. None of the rooms had any windows, but they had enormous double doors opening onto the tiled balconies above the courtyard. Nobody troubled to give anyone a key. The management simply took for granted all the guests were honest.
I went the next day to look up José Antonio Fernandez de Castro to whom, on a previous trip to Cuba, I had been given a letter of introduction by Miguel Covarrubias. José Antonio was a human dynamo who at once set things in motion. A friend of many American artists and writers, he drank with, wined and dined them all; fished with Hemingway; and loved to go to Marianao — the then nontourist amusement center. He knew all the taxicab drivers in town — with whom he had accounts — and was, in general, about the best person in Cuba to know, if you'd never been there before.
José Antonio was a newspaperman on the Diario De La Marina. He later became an editor of Orbe, Cuba's weekly pictorial magazine. Then he went into the diplomatic service to become the first secretary of the Cuban Embassy in Mexico City, and from there to Europe. Painters, writers, newsboys, poets, fighters, politicians and rumba dancers were all José's friends. And, best of all for me, he knew the Negro musicians at Marianao, those fabulous drum beaters who use their bare hands to beat out rhythm, those clave knockers and maraca shakers who somehow have saved — out of all the centuries of slavery and all the miles and miles from Guinea — the heartbeat and songbeat of Africa. This ancient heartbeat they pour out into the Cuban night from a little row of café hovels at Marianao. Or else they flood with song those smoky low-roofed dance halls where the poor of Havana go for entertainment after dark.
Most Cubans who lived in Vedado, Havana's fashionable section, had no idea where these dance halls were. That is why I liked José Antonio. He lived in Vedado, but he knew all Havana. Although he was a white Cuban of aristocratic background, he knew and loved Negro Cuba. That first night in town we went straight to Marianao.
This was my third trip to Cuba. Once I had been there as a sailor, and I had known the life of the water front and San Isidro Street. The winter proceeding my present trip, I had come in search of a Negro composer to do an opera with me at the behest of my New York patron. So I had by now many friends in Havana, including the then unknown Nicolás Guillén, who later became a famous poet. My own poems had been published in Spanish in a number of Cuban magazines and papers, and I had given readings of them previously for Havana cultural organizations. The Club Atenas, leading club of color, had entertained me.
The Club Atenas occupied a large building with a staircase of marble, beautiful reception rooms, a ballroom, a comfortable library, a fencing room and a buffet. I had been astonished and delighted with its taste and luxury, for colored people in the United States had no such club. Diplomats, politicians, professional men and their families made up its membership — and a cultured and charming group they were. Then no rumbas were danced within the walls of the Atenas, for in Cuba in 1930 the rumba was not a respectable dance among persons of good breeding. Only the poor and declassé, the sporting elements, and gentlemen on a spree danced the rumba.
Rumbas and sones are essentially hip-shaking music — of Afro-Cuban folk derivation, which means a bit of Spain, therefore Arab-Moorish, mixed in. The tap of claves, the rattle of gourds, the dong of iron bells, the deep steady roll of drums speak of the earth, life bursting warm from the earth, and earth and sun moving in the steady rhythms of procreation and joy.
A group of young business and professional men of Havana once gave a rumba party in my honor. It was not unlike an American fraternity or lodge smoker — except that women were present. The women were not, however, wives or sweethearts of the gentlemen giving the rumba. Far from it. They were, on the whole, so a companion whispered to me, younger and prettier than most of their wives. They were ladies of the demimonde, playgirls, friends and mistresses of the hosts, their most choice females invited especially for zest and decorativeness.
The party was held in a large old Spanish colonial house, presided over by a stout woman with bold ways. It began about four in the afternoon. At dusk dinner was served; then the fiesta went on far into the night. It was what the Cubans call a cumbancha. Spree, I suppose, would be our best word.
When I arrived a Negro rumba band was playing in the courtyard, beating it out gaily, with maracas beneath the melody like the soft undertow of sea waves. Several kegs of wine sat on stools in the open air, and a big keg of beer decorated one end of the patio. Hidden in a rear court was a bar from which waiters emerged with Bacardi or whatever else one wished to drink that was not already in sight.
A few lovely mulatto girls sat fanning in wicker chairs. One or two couples were dancing as I came in, but the sun still shone in the courtyard and it was not yet cool enough for much action. Gradually more and more people began to arrive, girls in groups, men in ones or twos, but no men and women together. These were the women men kept, but did not take out I had become acquainted with this custom of the mistress in Mexico and other Latin lands, where every man who was anybody at all had both a wife and a pretty mistress.
As the sun went down beyond the skyline, life began to throb in the cool enclosure. The taps on the wine kegs flowed freely. Lights were lighted in the patio, more chairs brought, and I was given a seat of honor near the orchestra. Most of the dancing pairs sat down, or disappeared inside the house. But the music seemed to take a new lease on life. Now various couples, one or two at a time, essayed the rumba in the center of the court as the rest of the party gathered to watch. I could not make out whether it was a dance contest or not, and my hosts were slightly tipsy by then so not very coherent in their explanations. But when the dancing couples seemed to tire, others took the floor. Sometimes a short burst of applause would greet an especially adept pair as the man swept around the woman like a cock about a hen, or the woman without losing a beat of the rhythm, went very slowly down to the floor on firm feet and undulated up again. Tirelessly the little Negro band played. Like a mighty dynamo deep in the bowels of the earth, the drums throbbed, beat, sobbed, grumbled, cried, and then laughed a staccato laugh. The dancing kept up until it was quite dark and the first stars came out.
Glass after glass was thrust into my hands as I sat looking and listening with various friends about me. Then after a while, a little tired of sitting still so long, I got up and moved to the other end of the courtyard. As soon as I rose, the music stopped. People began to drink and chatter, but there was no more exhibition dancing. Later I learned that I, as the guest of honor, controlled that part of the entertainment. By rising, I had indicated a lack of further interest, so the rumba stopped. Had I known, I might have not risen so soon.
Excerpted from I Wonder as I Wander by Langston Hughes. Copyright © 1984 George Houston Bass. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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