Printer Friendly

Works for Children and Young Adults.

Works for Children and Young Adults. Vol. 11. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Edited with an introduction by Dianne Johnson. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2003. 392 pp. $44.95.

In the 1990s, Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel researched a chronological Collected Poems (1994); Akiba Sullivan Harper complemented their fine detective work with Langston Hughes: Short Stories (1996). Christopher D. De Santis edited the collection of essays, Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender (1995). In the new century, Susan Duffy has contributed The Political Plays of Langston Hughes (2000), and Emily Bernard a comparative edition, Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 (2001). Altogether, they make for arguably the most significant outpouring of basic research on Hughes since his death on May 22, 1967, at Polyclinic Hospital in New York City. Readers from all walks of life will appreciate the ready availability of such important texts about this much admired, much-admiring author.

The artistry and historicity of Dianne Johnson's volume make it especially appealing to young readers. Since the 393-page text actually includes variously 10 pamphlets of stories, fiction, and history from 1932 through 1960 (and uncollected poetry dating back to 1921), small children in particular would enjoy such rich morsels. Johnson has arranged portions of Hughes's work by genre, theme, or figures that delightfully encapsulate his often polished perceptions of detailed scenes. Once read as a unified text--of which the pamphlets and previously unpublished pieces and poems were not originally part--Works for Children as a whole provides two symbolic stories across all the others. One becomes Hughes's hypertale about the variously innocent and experienced world of the child and of the mature detached narrator telling the tale; a complementary story reveals a rhythm that informs all of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas. The balancing stories inform subconsciously the shape and structure of the book with the new design's literally allowing for the fiction and poetry in the first part to face the history in the final parts.

In addition to an informative introduction of 11 pages, a one-page note on the texts provides a useful context, as does another about the illustrations. Because true of all volumes in the Missouri series, a six-page chronology about the writer's life and work serves as standard fare. Four primary sections in the omnibus volume include contributions from the Brownie's Book (1921), which was the children's insert into The Crisis; The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932); about 15 memorable poems, of which at least 12 are actually reprinted from Hughes's first volume, The Weary Blues (1926); and Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932) along with stories from Black Misery (1969) and The Pasteboard Bandit (1935; 1997)). Rounding out the children's literary world are five juvenile histories by Hughes: The First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), The First Book of Jazz (1955), The First Book of the West Indies (1956), and The First Book of Africa (1960). Especially for those of us who often prioritize his poetry--while wondering exactly what he was writing between Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama (1961)--his juvenilia and stories account for his sustained work during the mid-century decade.

Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti (1932) should help encourage future interpretations of Hughes's literary voice since only two volumes, Langston Hughes (1967) and The Art and Imagination of Langston Hughes (1989) broadly engage the literary work itself. Certainly the current volume seems a unified narrative infused with various motifs of childhood adventure, from enchanting dances on tropical nights, to kite-flying in tricky winds, from woodwork sculptures, or simply to summer swims to the local lighthouse. More subtly, the collection depicts the artist as a young man. Early on, brother Popo and sister Fifina walk barefoot between two-long eared burros ("Going to Town") down a high road to the seacoast, their peasant parents Papa Jean and Mamma Anna happily at their sides. Eventually the path leads from their grandmother's home in the country to a new location in town. There, standing at the apex on the hillside, the father holds his hands on his hips while spying the point at which the mountain would seem to touch the sky. Slowly the family descends to the new home in the valley below: "All the way up the hill under the banana trees, and across the gurgling brook, they could hear the drums beating happily ("Drums at Night"). When a hawk subsequently attacks the child's toy ("The New Kite"), the boy's jerking string grounds the predator, "Like an evil bird with a broken wing." If Hughes's phrasing sounds familiar, it is--ubiquitous to the point of Hallmark greeting cards. In the Dream Keeper the soaring bird's wings must never be clipped, for the hawk threatens the Dream that must prevail.

Perhaps the structure of Works for Children should be reversed since the past literally informs (in-forms) the creative work. But the best literary order is not necessarily chronological. From The First Book of Negroes (1952), through the First Book of Rhythms (1954), The First Book of Jazz (1955), and The First Book of the West Indies (1956) to The First Book of Africa (1960), Hughes traces the African Diaspora to Timbuktu, Mali, near the end of the sixteenth century. Beyond African American figures, he calls children to celebrate those people of African ancestry who speak diverse languages throughout the world--Portuguese (Brazil), Caribbean (French), Gulf of Mexico (Native American languages), the Black Sea (Russian), and Guiana (Dutch). To Hughes, the "rhythms of life" connect idioms together, for the universe seems to be a veritable living organism that connects all people and things. Today his definition of a "blue" note still proves instructive, as does his outlining of the basic elements of jazz (syncopation, improvisation, drums, rhythm, blue note [off notes, glissando, slur], and tone color). His tables of musicians and countries facilitate the researching of a player's particular instrument or a writer's nation, forcing a neat compartmentalization to make us see beyond boundaries. Works for Children is still a wonderful book for diverse audiences. If Hughes were yet alive, perhaps he would smile about the unfashionable terms Negro and colored that date his text. For today's readers his diction must be revised. What he called Rhodesia in 1960 became Zambia in the North by 1964 and Zimbabwe in the South by 1980. Even then Ghana still struggled to become the beacon of light for which Hughes hoped.

Dianne Johnson writes of a richly historical context within Hughes's own era. Her thoughtful consideration of audience and her presentation of theme create a graceful context for Hughes's finest children's work. In keeping with the requirements of the University of Missouri series, she avoids scholarly apparatus that would disaffect Hughes's loyal readership in particular and a literate public in general. The clear design of her text and the arrangement of illustrations don't suffer by the exclusion of an index. Johnson distills a refreshing innocence from a Hughes span of nearly 40 years, and she inspires the childhood reader in us all.

R. Baxter Miller

University of Georgia
COPYRIGHT 2004 African American Review
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Miller, R. Baxter
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2004
Words:1190
Previous Article:Susan Duffy, ed. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes.
Next Article:Martha Gilman Bower. "Color Struck" under the Gaze: Ethnicity and the Pathology of Being in the Plays of Johnson, Hurston, Childress, Hansberry, and...
Topics:


Related Articles
Black Authors and Illustrators of Children's Books: A Biographical Dictionary.
Books by African-American Authors and Illustrators.
Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.
THE CREATIVITY HANDBOOK: A Visual Arts Guide for Parents and Teachers.
Children, Power and Schooling: How Childhood Is Structured in the Primary School.
Companion to American Children's Picture Books.
Cook, Sally: Good Night Pillow Fight.
van Gogh, Vincent: Vincent's Colors.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters