Posted: 21 May 2014 07:24 AM PDT
My mind was driftingÂ to the sound of an auctioneer in an adjoining roomÂ of the auction houseÂ when I heardÂ the word "Harlem."
I looked upÂ front to theÂ TV monitor in the room where I sat to see aÂ book with a black cover, orange spine andÂ title in lavender letters. Itâs a book of poems by Langston Hughes, the auctioneer said, starting the bid way way too high for me toÂ even touch it. Then he dropped it a tad lower and then lower.
How could I have missed this book? I was so focused on finding Paul Laurence Dunbarâs "Poems of Cabin and Field" that I had completely overlooked "Shakespeare in Harlem" by Hughes. So I pulled out my phone and started pressing keys to research it.
"Iâm not going any lower than this," the auctioneer announced firmly, stopping at a price that was still higher than I was used to paying. Heck, thatâs why I go to auctions,Â so I can get gems like this for as little cost as I can.
The auctioneer allowed his final offer to linger but no one was biting, not even bidders onÂ the phone or internet. This was a special ephemera auction that draws bidders from all over with deep pockets. With no takers, he passed on the book. It remained unsold in one of the glass cases where the auction house keeps the most valuable items.
I was glad no one bid on it, because it gave me more time to search. The more I searchedÂ the more excited I got about the book. I wanted it. So after the auction was over, I offered to buy it outright. But I first hadÂ to check its condition.
The orange color was a little faded on the spine, and a small tear on the back had been mended. The pages were in very good condition, crisp, with no pen or pencil inscriptions, no tears and no creases. The book was missing its dust jacket.
It was a first edition, which was noted inside, published in 1942. It was illustrated with black and white etchings by E. McKnight Kauffer and dedicated to "Louise," who I later learned was Louise Thompson Patterson, a civil rights activist during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, and a friend of Hughes.
Some of the poems in the book had already appeared in several magazines.
On an intro page were Hughes' instructions on how to best enjoy the poems:
A note printed in theÂ back of the bookÂ statedÂ that the headings on the poems were in Vogue Extra-Bold "to express the utmost simplicity."
By the time Hughes produced "Shakespeare" in 1942, he had already made a name for himself as a poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer and more. This was the first book of poetry he wrote after moving permanently to Harlem in the early 1940s (he had also lived there in the 1920s). He was also writing a column for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, where one of his most well-known characters Jesse B Semple, or simply Simple was created in 1943.
Hughes was called the Shakespeare of Harlem and the neighborhoodâs "poet laureate." In 1948, Destination Freedom, a Chicago-basedÂ radio show about the achievementsÂ ofÂ African Americans, dramatized his life in a program called "Shakespeare of Harlem." Hughes, who had lived in the city and started a theater group there, was a friend of the originator and producer of the show, Richard Durham.
Starting out as a young writer in his 20s during the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes told the stories ofÂ people from the streets, much to the dismay of some African Americans. They were trying hard to paint a cultured picture of black folks to counterÂ the negativeÂ portrayal in the mainstream. One black newspaper called Hughes the "Sewer Dweller," and another blasted him as the "poet low-rate of Harlem."
He didnât back down, noting that he wrote about the people he grew up with, who did not go to Harvard or listened to Bach. He saw himself as a folk poet whoÂ wrote about "workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicagoâpeople up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easterâand pawning that suit before the Fourth of July."
"Shakespeare" contained poems about these folks – their blues, their struggles, their dying and their loving, and the racism that kept them down. The poems also depicted some of the humor that kept them sane.
As for the drawings in the book, Hughes apparently was not initiallyÂ enamored with them. A white American illustrator, Kauffer was well-known in England for his poster art. Hughes complained about the "nappy" hair that Kauffer had applied toÂ the people (in the book, it was the men, many of whom around this timeÂ processed theirÂ hair). When Hughes saw the proofs, he apparently came around, according to Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad.
He also did not like the drawing on the dust cover, a wishbone and dice, which he considered "tawdry" and overused symbols of black people. He wasn't the only one: When the book was published, several of his supportersÂ andÂ friendsÂ complained about the cover and the publisher's choice of a white illustrator when there were blacks who could have been chosen (Hughes had the same complaint). The publisher agreed to change the cover ifÂ a second printing was warranted.
The book wasÂ praised and criticized by both black and white reviewers, with some calling it shallow – probably because of its simplicity. Rampersad noted thatÂ Hughes himself may haveÂ contributed to this assessment with his introÂ designating it as a book of "light verse."
With Shakespeare in the title, I started searching through the book for the poem that bore its name. Hughes had already referenced Shakespeareâs sonnets in the heading of the first chapter titledÂ "Seven Moments of Love," with the subtitle "An Un-Sonnet Sequence in Blues." So I figured a poem was in there somewhere; I found it in the last chapter that he titled "Lenox Avenue."
"'Shakespeare in Harlem'
Hey ninny neigh!
And a hey nonny noe!
Where, oh, where
Did my sweet mama go?
With a tra-la-la-la!
They say your sweet mama
Went home to her ma."
It was not what I expected and Iâm still not sure what it means. It almost sounds nonsensical, even spoken out loud. One writer noted that this was precisely Hughesâ intention. Hereâs how he decoded this poem and the book itself in the context of Shakespeare.
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