President Obama, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Langston Hughes

Posted August 5th, 2013 by Albert DeCiccio Ph.D., Provost, Southern Vermont College

Dear Everyone.

I have been preoccupied with many tasks that have prevented me from putting out this email to all of you, following the surprisingly candid and insightful remarks of President Obama following the Tryavon Martin verdict.  I was having a discussion with some students about the Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, and, after that conversation I had to put something down on paper.

First, I hope that you will read the transcript in the link below (you may even want to watch the utube video of President Obama making the speech by clicking on another link I’ve provided).  It is a remarkable text.  Reminds me of reading Cornell West, especially Race Matters.

Second, on our web site is a link to a snippet of a longer speech Henry Louis Gates, Jr., made at the Bennington Center for the Arts in 2009.  I provide the link below because I think Gates’s point about helping African American males stay in high school, graduate, and emulate role models like Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall is exactly what President Obama is saying in his third point about the need to “bolster and reinforce our African American boys.”

Third, I think everyone should treat themselves to a healthy portion of Langston Hughes.  His poetry, like Whitman’s, is so rhythmic and melodic, so honest and poignant that one cannot help but learn about life, relationships, racism, oppression, hopelessness, and misunderstanding.  I have reproduced two of Hughes’s most well know poems.  I think they capture the range of emotions the President was feeling following the Tryavon Martin decision and that he conjured in his remarkable text on July 19.

With all good wishes,


What happens to a dream deferred?

Langston Hughes

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?


Theme for English B

Langston Hughes

The instructor said,

   Go home and write
   a page tonight.
   And let that page come out of you—
   Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?

Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.


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