Table of Contents
BOOKS BY PAULE MARSHALL
Brown Girl, Brownstones
Soul Clap Hands and Sing
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People
Reena and Other Stories
Praisesong for the Widow
The Fisher King
This book is an adaptation of a lecture series delivered at Harvard University in 2005 on the theme of “Bodies of Water”—specific rivers, seas and oceans—and their profound impact on black history and culture throughout the Americas.
HOMAGE TO Mr. Hughes
ew York. Early May, 1965. The return address on the official-looking letter I retrieved from my mailbox read “United States Department of State, 301 Fourth Street, SW, Washington, D.C. 20547.” Frankly, I registered only the words “department” and “state,” “State Department,” and instantly panicked, anticipating the worst. The letter just had to be bad news of some sort. Why else would the State Department be writing me? Was I perhaps being summoned to appear before a new Joe McCarthy-type subcommittee on Un-American Activities? It was the
height of the Civil Rights Movement, after all, and my involvement in the northern front of the Struggle had to be known. The thing in my hand might well mean trouble.
When I finally managed to calm down enough to open the letter, its contents proved to be a different matter altogether. Rather than a dire summons, it turned out to be a once-in-a-lifetime plum of an invitation.
According to the letter, the world-renowned poet Langston Hughes would soon be conducting a month-long cultural tour of Europe for the government, during which he would be giving a series of readings as well as talks on African American literature. This was something Mr. Hughes had done for the State Department on a number of occasions in other parts of the world. Only this time he had insisted that two young writers, of his choosing, be included on the tour. And he had named me as one of the writers he wished to take with him.
The invitation in hand, I stood dumbstruck for the longest time. Langston Hughes! None other than the poet laureate of black America had chosen me to accompany him on a cultural tour of
Europe! Me, a mere fledgling of a writer, with only one novel and a collection of stories published to date! Why would someone of his stature so much as consider a novice like myself?
Perhaps I should not have been all that surprised. Mr. Hughes was known for the support and encouragement he extended to the generation of younger writers like myself who began publishing in the 1950s and early 1960s. The poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, among others, have written of their indebtedness to him. In my case, he had been kind enough to attend the book party that launched my first novel, published in 1959, a somewhat standard coming-of-age tale about a girl not unlike myself born and raised in a Brooklyn community that was both African American and West Indian. The book party, held in a Harlem storefront, was just getting underway when, to the awe of everyone there, the great man appeared in the doorway. Mr. Hughes was in his early sixties by then. The handsome, soulful-looking young poet of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance had long been replaced by a somewhat paunchy, rapidly aging yet nonetheless
urbane man of letters, every wave of his naturally wavy hair in place, and his trademark cigarette a permanent fixture between his lips.
There he stood, the poet who had long been a literary icon, come to celebrate with me, come to congratulate me on the favorable reviews my novel had received, there to beam at me like a paterfamilias whose offspring had done him proud.
To add to the celebration, I was eight months pregnant at the time. A book and a baby in the same year and produced within a month of each other! A feat I was never to manage again. Mr. Hughes also promptly congratulated me as well as my husband standing beside me on the upcoming baby.
Two years later, 1961, saw yet another instance of his thoughtfulness and support upon the publication of my second book, the collection of stories I mentioned earlier entitled
Soul Clap Hands and Sing
. A postcard arrived from Mr. Hughes, written in his distinctive green ink. “‘Clap Hands’ is about the prettiest looking book I ever saw,” the card read. “It j
came. I look forward to reading it.” His large boyish flourish of a signature at the bottom.
Then, when the collection won a modest award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, who was the first person at the awards ceremony to come hurrying over to plant a congratulatory kiss,
à la française,
on either side of my face? None other than Mr. Hughes. Indeed, he might well have been instrumental in my receiving the award—perhaps recommending the collection to those he knew on the academy’s selection committee.
The People’s Poet continued to keep the novice in mind.
Now he had gone so far as to invite her to travel with him to Europe.
Would you perhaps be interested in accompanying Mr. Hughes on the tour?
the State Department letter read. A dumb question if ever there was! It then went on to say that if, indeed, I was interested in participating in the tour, I would be required to come to Washington to be briefed beforehand. Anyone traveling overseas under the auspices of the United States Department of State first had to be briefed.
Feeling panicked again, I nonetheless took the plane to Washington.
A convicted felon in a Flannery O’Connor story I often teach says of the legal authorities that have finally succeeded in tracking him down: “They had the papers on me.” Irrefutable evidence, that is, of his many crimes. Such, also, was my case, I discovered. The authorities in Washington “had the papers on me.” They were compiled, “those papers,” the incriminating evidence, inside a sizable accordion-style folder or dossier,
that confronted me on the desk in the State Department office where the briefing was being held.
From the size of the thing it had to contain a detailed account of my involvement in every political
organization to which I had ever belonged, from the Communist Party fringe AYD (American Youth for Democracy), whose cause I had briefly embraced at age seventeen, to the Association of Artists for Freedom and Concerned Mothers for Justice, the two organizations within the northern front of the Movement in which I was most involved at present. The principal activity of the two organizations was fund-raising to support the voting rights efforts underway in the Deep South. The extensive file must also have included the transcript of every speech in which I had roundly taken the government to task. Also on record had to be a list of each rally, protest meeting, demonstration and march I had participated in, including the first-ever joint Civil Rights- Anti-Vietnam War march, which had taken place that past winter in Times Square. As usual, the FBI agents in their London Fog trench coats had been on hand, openly writing down names and taking photographs from the sidelines.
More material for the dossiers in Washington.
Marching alongside me, I recall, had been “a brother” who kept up a volatile whisper of “Burn, baby, burn / burn, baby, burn,” the newest anthem
at the time of a frustrated and enraged black urban America. (My childhood world of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn had rioted the previous year, entire blocks going up in flames.) The brother, his face half-buried in his turned-up coat collar, had brought to mind Jesse B. Semple, the highly popular Harlem Every-man and barroom philosopher that Mr. Hughes had created as a newspaper series in the 1940s. An angry Jesse B. Semple might have taken Duke Ellington’s
down from Harlem to mutter his incendiary mantra in the heart of Times Square. Had he actually existed there would have been a file in Washington on him also.
The government officer conducting the briefing turned out to be a rather matronly looking woman with graying blond hair, blue-gray eyes and the carefully cultivated neutral manner of a civil servant long on the job. Framed on either side of her desk by LBJ’s official portrait and the flag on its eagle-crowned standard, she began our session by placing a hand lightly on my dossier. “Seems you’ve been fairly active.” Said with an undefined half-smile as she slid the folder aside and began the briefing.
The woman first gave a capsule history of the government’s cultural programs around the world, then went on to describe at some length our particular tour: the various European cities we would be visiting and the general nature of our activities. The United States Information Service (USIS) people in charge of “operations on the ground” in each city would have a detailed schedule of those activities. Later, on a lighter, more conversational note, she offered chatty little tidbits about some of the places we would be visiting: the white nights in Copenhagen could be somewhat disorienting; complaints about the food in London were largely justified; unfortunately, the month of May in Paris usually meant rain, off-and-on rain—although the city remained beautiful nonetheless. In fact, Paris was to be our base, she said. The tour would begin there, and we would regularly return to the City of Light following visits to other places on the itinerary.
The woman talked for close to an hour, yet, strangely, she never again mentioned the dossier, filled with my denunciations and actions against the government, lying between us on her desk.
She never again so much as glanced in its direction. So that while sitting there hearing her out, I found myself thinking of Joseph K., Franz Kafka’s poor beleaguered hero of his classic novel,
With Joseph K., there had been “no papers on him,” no file or folder, no record of a single word or action on his part against the state. Yet, in the novel, he is hounded and persecuted unto death by a faceless, all-powerful state.
Whereas my situation was the exact opposite. While my quarrel with the U.S. government was a matter of record—viz., the dossier—said government was apparently perfectly willing to treat me to an almost month-long, all-expense-paid trip to Europe, with
as the base! Surely Washington knew that I would be as outspoken abroad as at home. Why, then, agree to me accompanying Mr. Hughes? I sat puzzling over this as the briefing continued, only to conclude that the government might actually benefit by sending “an emissary” such as myself overseas. The fact that I would be openly critical of its policies could well serve as proof that the country was truly a democracy committed to respecting the First Amendment rights
of even its most vocal detractors. Thus, Washington might well come out the winner every time I opened my mouth.
The longtime civil servant across the desk obviously understood this. Her somewhat flippant comment on my dossier: “Seems you’ve been fairly active.” The way she had then relegated it to one side implied as much. The file might have been trotted out simply to put me on notice that Big Brother was watching and would continue to watch. So be it, then. The briefing over, I left Washington sans illusions. I would definitely go on the tour—this once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel with a world-famous writer; and I would speak my mind about said government when asked, even though my freedom to criticize might, ironically, redound to Washington’s good. No matter. Speaking out would be a way of making use of being used—if, indeed, such was the case.
The tour was due to get underway shortly, so that once back in New York I quickly set about preparing to leave: first, making arrangements for the care of my young son, the book-party baby, and then putting aside the novel—my second—that I
had been working on for some time. I also made sure to take along my one and only novel that Mr. Hughes had helped launch. Perhaps I might find a European publisher for it. Then, on the appointed day, still dazed by my good fortune, I took a taxi to Kennedy Airport along with William Melvin Kelley, the other writer Mr. Hughes had chosen.