“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams, for when dreams go, life is a barren field, frozen with snow.” —Langston Hughes
Black History Month begins with a celebration of Langston Hughes’ birthday on Feb. 1. Smithsonian Magazine calls him “one of the nation’s greatest writers.”
Hughes’ paternal great-grandmothers were enslaved African-Americans. His paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners in Kentucky.
Crossing the Mississippi River for the first time, Hughes was inspired to write “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the poem that made him famous at age 18: “I’ve known rivers: / I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers. / I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. / I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. / I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. / I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, / and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. / I’ve known rivers: / Ancient, dusky rivers. / My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Hughes’ most famous poem is “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? / Or fester like a sore— / And then run? / Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over— / like a syrupy sweet? / Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?”
The epitaph on Langston Hughes’ Harlem tomb reads: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”