In 1926 Langston Hughes published his collection of poetry, The Weary Blues. That same year my father was born in the segregated South. Carl Van Vechten’s book, Nigger Heaven, was also published that year.
My father was born on this day in 1926, nearly seven years after World War I ended in 1919, a war that his uncle served in. That very same year, 1919, saw race riots across the United States. Black World War I veterans were targeted, for the obvious reasons, in what some historians call Red Summer. Four years later the Black Wall Street was destroyed, burned down by angry hordes of white Americans whose response to Black prosperity, that American Dream that perhaps was elusive to them, was violence. In fact, whenever Black Americans asserted their rights, they were met by violence by white folk. Almost all of white violence against Black people went unpunished. Often, law enforcement turned a blind eye, in a different iteration of blindfolded Lady Justice.
It was this historical backdrop by father was brought into the world. At the same time, far from the South, in seemingly another country, another world, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. Langston Hughes, one of the prominent Black writers of this era, published his collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, our book recommendation for today. The title speaks volumes. Blues, as experienced by Black Americans, is a uniquely American “thing” – it encompasses so much, so much more than music; these “gifts” W.E.B. DuBois wrote about are all wrapped up in the blues. A short story by the great James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues,” captures what the blues is. In the final analysis, the blues just wants to be. It wants to be left alone to be. “Why can’t a man just be?” Sonny, the title character, asks.
White Americans have made being for Black Americans difficult in the extreme. This is the blues, and in 1926 Black folk were weary of how they had to be in America, often simply to survive.
I will write a part II to this because my father’s story only begins in 1926. (Note: my father absolutely loved the music of Ray Charles.)