August 2, 2004

Lecture helps close Hughes exhibit


By Eric Rangus

The Special Collections exhibit "Langston Hughes: Poet of the People" closed July 31, and helping send it off in style was Emory emeritus Professor Richard Long, who spoke on Hughes' life and writings, Tuesday, July 20.

Long's address, "Looking at Langston: An Overview of the Life and Work of Langston Hughes," was sponsored by the Friends of Emory Libraries and drew more than 70 people--an overflow crowd--to Special Collections' Robert Winship Woodruff Room on the 10th floor of Woodruff Library. The event was part of the National Black Arts Festival, which ran July 16-25.

"I know several people who are writers, and when you talk to them you can't get a word in edgewise; Langston wasn't like that," said Long, Atticus G. Haygood Professor of Interdis-ciplinary Studies emeritus. A full-time Emory faculty member from 1986-2001 (and adjunct faculty for 13 years before that), Long has served on the editorial board of the Langston Hughes Bulletin and written about many African American writers, including Hughes, whom many consider the foremost African American poet of the 20th century and a prominent figure in the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.

Also an African and African American art scholar, Long co-chairs the African American collections advisory committee for Emory Libraries. He is an expert in the politics of culture in Thailand, Java and Bali, and the history of dance. Maya Angelou, a close friend of Long, has written that he is "a polymath who knows a great deal about everything."

Long discussed the wide range of Hughes' work, which includes novels, biographies, histories, plays, translations and even operas. Chief among Hughes' writings were his 17 collections of poetry. The first, The Weary Blues, was released in 1926, and the final collection, The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, was released posthumously in 1967. Those titles, Long intimated, were symbolic of Hughes' relevance to the African American experience throughout his life.

"When he died, they were talking about the [Black] Panthers," Long said, "And when he started, they were sure talking about the blues."

For more than 50 minutes Long shared anecdotes about why Hughes wrote what he did and sketched a detailed outline of the poet's personal and professional relationships. Hughes was always encouraging of other writers, Long said, and in his concluding remarks spoke of his one meeting with the poet at the first World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in 1966 in Dakar, Senegal.

Relating to his fellow man, Long said, was one of Hughes' greatest gifts. "He had an excellent ear for the cadences of life and he constantly did research," Long said of Hughes. "He never missed a street occasion in Harlem. If there was a fire, he rushed out to hear what people were saying."

Long closed his talk with a reading of four Hughes poems, which he delivered in such dramatic tones that he was rewarded with a loud ovation.

Special Collections' Hughes exhibit ran from April 14-July 31 and featured collections from two of Hughes' closest friends. In 2000 and 2001, Emory acquired the papers of Louise Thompson Patterson and Matt and Evelyn Crawford, all of whom first met Hughes in the 1920s. Patterson and Matt Crawford accompanied Hughes during a 1932 trip to the Soviet Union with the goal of making a film depicting conditions in the American South. While the film was never made, the trip was well documented, and several photos from the journey were on display.

Other displayed items included letters, copies of books and pamphlets (many signed by Hughes himself) and a partial transcription of Hughes' 1953 testimony to a U.S. Senate committee asking him about the radical content of some of his early work. One of the questioners was Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

The collection was curated by Lawrence Jackson, associate professor of English, and two graduate students. "This is an example of the way we want to use our collections to engage students in research and public scholarship," said Randall Burkett, Special Collections' curator of African American collections.