Two weeks in a row of intense poetry dealing with racism are good for a person, but in a painful way. (Also I may have been procrastinating on homework by reading a sad children’s novel, but don’t tell anyone.) Langston Hughes embodies well the difficulties faced by people of color in the early twentieth century. So much so that it can be emotionally exhausting to read the frankness of pain and suffering present in his poetry. But this week, I’m powering through a stuffy nose and an aching heart to talk about Hughes’s poem “Come to the Waldorf -Astoria” and Walter Dean Meyers’ poem “Harlem: A poem.” (This may in fact be an excerpt from his novel Harlem, but the internet is not being very resourceful today.)
One of my main reasons for comparing these two poets and their poems is that they both focus on the location of Harlem and New York, dealing with racial issues present within the area in both their lives, which happen to overlap some. Hughes uses “Come to the Waldorf-Astoria” to bring to light the disparity between the white upper class in New York during the Depression and the impoverished blacks. His stanzas are an ironic form of hyperbole and seem to grow in intensity and black humor. Hughes contrasts the idea of a hotel where black people can neither work nor stay with the idea that it is so incredibly open, and at a $10,000 price tag! The constant juxtaposition is discomforting, and serves to make the reader realize how problematic and the situation is.
On the other hand Walter Dean Meyers’ poem about Harlem takes on a more positive light. It reminisces Harlem as a place of music and joviality, although it recognizes at times the more somber realities. One of my favorite stanzas goes
Sparrows sit on fire escapes
Outside rent parties
To learn the tunes.
Meyers creates an image of Harlem not brought low by poverty, but creating music that even the birds admire. Harlem is a place of musical beauty, with dancing and culture all around. It is a mix of cultures and times, all jumbled up together, but still a place he calls a home.
While Hughes makes references to current events within his poem, citing the hotel and some famous artists, Meyers looks back in his poem, remembering even Hughes as a formative creator of what Harlem has become for him. Both poets use these allusions to make the poems more real, not merely ideas or satire, but something that can and does exist within the real world.
It’s refreshing to take the hurt of the past and see how it has grown and flourished. While it is impossible to say that life for African-Americans is completely great, things tend to go in the right direction, and that’s worth celebrating in the small things.