For Black History Month, each weekday, we feature American and Haitian contributions to the advancement of people of African descent. Each feature pairs two leading figures from similar professional backgrounds.
My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition … and obliquely that of all humankind. — Langston Hughes
His Words Carried a People’s Dreams
The words of Langston Hughes, “a dream deferred” and “black like me” take on a beat and pulse that continues to resonate with the black consciousness today. Regarded as the “people’s poet,” Hughes’ writings incorporated the rhythms of blues and jazz, and spoke to the full experience and identity of black people in America.
When Hughes was 19, his poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was published in the NAACP’s The Crisis. The poem tells the story of a rich black heritage, and connects the journey from Africa to America. In 1922, Hughes enrolled in Columbia University but left that same year, and instead found inspiration in the cultural movement of the Harlem Renaissance. He later received a scholarship to attend historically black Lincoln University, where he earned a bachelor of arts. During his studies at Lincoln, Hughes’ work caught the attention of writer and photographer, Carl Van Vechten, who helped publish his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues.
When he graduated from Lincoln, Hughes’ published his first novel, Not Without Laughter. It won a Harmon gold medal for literature. With the commercial success of the book, the writer traveled on lecture tours throughout the United States, and also to Cuba, Japan, the Soviet Union and Haiti.
It was during his trip to Haiti, Hughes met Haitian writer and politician, Jacques Roumain — a visit he recalls in I Wonder as I Wander. The two became friends, and eventually Hughes would translate Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la Rosée (Masters of the Dew). Inspired by his three month stay in the Caribbean country, Hughes authored his first children’s book Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti with fellow writer Arna Bontemps. The book depicts the everyday life of a brother and sister as their family adjusts to moving from a small village to the larger town of Cap Haitien.
Throughout the 1940s, Hughes frequently contributed to and served on the editorial board of Common Ground, a literary magazine published by the Common Council for American Unity (CCAU), focused on highlighting the cultural contributions of the various ethnic and religious groups that encompass the US. In the early 40s, Hughes contributed a comic strip to the Chicago Defender based on his character Jesse B. Semple, a man living in Harlem whose story addressed the struggles and joys of black working-class. Semple later become the focus of several of Hughes’ books and plays.
At the age of 65, Hughes passed away on May 22, 1967, from complications of prostate cancer. His ashes are buried in Harlem, beneath the floor of the entrance at the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s Langston Hughes Atrium. Hughes’ burial space is marked by an African cosmogram titled Rivers, taken from The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Inscripted within the center of the cosmogram is the poem’s final line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
Haiti’s Master of Words
Though he only lived for 37 years, Jacques Roumain became one of the most famous pan-African writers of his time, and in history. His friendship and collaboration with Langston Hughes has been a main point of entry for many who seek to learn about the renowned Haitian writer. His celebrated novel, Gouverneurs de la Rosée, is considered to be one of the greatest works of literature from Haiti, and from the region.
Roumain was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on June 4,1907, to a mixed-race, affluent family. He attended Saint Louis de Gonzague, and continued his university studies across Europe, including Switzerland, France, Germany, England and Spain, where he focused on agronomy. Roumain returned to Haiti the year before Jean Price-Mars published Ainsi parla l’oncle. Immediately, he was immersed in the island’s literary scene and the resistance efforts against the US Occupation — as a founder of the literary journal, la Revue Indigène and the Haitian Communist Party.
Roumain was imprisoned three times: in 1929, 1933 and 1934. President Stenio Vincent had him arrested and charged with printing subversive literature. The trial was sensationalized; it erupted into a dramatic showdown with Roumain hitting the prosecutor and fighting courtroom attendants. The prosecutor insulted Roumain, saying he was the offspring of a family of murderers — Roumains’s grandfather, President Tancrede Auguste, had been allegedly accused of torching the old palace in 1911. While in prison, Roumain wrote his political and social essay, Analyse schématique 32-34.
Upon release, he returned to Europe, exiled for his Communist politics. The capitalist occupiers and their sympathizers cracked down on all such political activity. A 1936 decree outlawed the Communist Party in Haiti. Roumain ended up studying ethnology at the Sorbonne in Paris, and under the tutelage of Paul Rivet, he studied paleontology at the Musée de l’Homme. During this time, several of his poems and essays were published in various magazines, including Regards, Commune and Les Volontaires. In The Colored Man, a collection of notable essays by Pan-African writers, he published one of his first internationally-renowned essays, Les griefs de l’homme noir, (The Grievances of the Black Man). Once World War II broke out, Roumain was able to leave Paris for the US.
At New York’s Columbia University, Roumain continued his scientific and literary studies. He would visit Cuba frequently, and worked with Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen in Havana. When President Elie Lescot was elected in 1941, Roumain was able to return to Haiti. Upon his return, he founded and directed the Bureau d’Ethnologie de la République d’Haïti, to advance the study of Haitian culture, and its origins. President Lescot appointed Roumain as chargé d’affaires in the Haitian embassy in Mexico.
While in Mexico, Roumain completed his masterpiece, Gouverneurs de la Rosée, a story of a prodigal son who returns home, to a small village hit by drought. The nuanced tale is laced with the complexities of the different kouch sosyal (socio-economic status) that exits in Haiti. His eloquent blend of Haitian Creole, spoken mostly on the countryside, and the cosmopolitan French of the city-folk, portrayed a people suffering – at the crossroads of culture, class and racism. The search for water serves as allegory for the search of a collective identity and political consciousness.
Roumain finished his influential novel one month before he passed away, on August, 18, 1944.
Editors’ Note: Several scholars contributed their insights and expertise to the research for these profiles — Millery Polyne of New York University, Mark Schuller of Northern Illinois University, Patrick Sylvain of Brown University and Gina Athena Ulysse of Wesleyan University.