Langston Hughes was a performer, and he made being Langston Hughes look triumphantly easy. What was difficult about being Langston Hughes interests me right now. He was the child who kept being lost and found by his perpetually discontented mother, and the boy who was psychically manhandled by an angry, selfish father—when Father had time to be involved at all. Langston Hughes was easy to love, as a poet and a man. And he must have enjoyed being easy to love; people always do. He did not enjoy the intrusiveness of intimacy, and at some point, intimacy always becomes intrusive. It’s very complicated to be the voice, even the many voices of a people. Your people. We know what boundaries the white world placed on Langston Hughes, but our love and judgments made other kinds of demands and imposed other boundaries on him. Our intimacy with him must have been intrusive sometimes, too. He was restless, I think, and independent—something of a chameleon, full of mixed moods. Maybe that’s one reason, a temperamental reason, he was drawn to the blues. They’re the least self-conscious poems about consciousness—all those warring states of mind and changes of heart, narrative and lyric at the same time. And it must have been why he was drawn to Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, because in their work, as in Hughes’s, the private merges into the public, and the public voice becomes achingly confessional, or joyously confessional, and unstoppably rhythmic, and if you think of those jazz poems—“Montage of a Dream Deferred,” “YARDBIRD! / HELP ME!”—that’s the voice you hear.
Langston Hughes came to speak at my college once, and our Black Student Organization had invited him to go out with us afterwards. We gathered around him possessively, but one white student was there, too. She seemed not to know about our plans, and she wanted to talk to Langston Hughes briefly. And since it was 1966 or maybe ’67, we wanted him to snub her mercilessly. But he talked amiably with her for just a few minutes. We indicated it was time to get started, to go away. He began to ask her if she wanted to join us, and we managed to convey without being brutally frank that, you know, no: he was with us, and she was to go her own way. He said goodbye to her pleasantly and he went off with us. So he had assuaged everyone, and maybe he had assuaged no one. I remember feeling very snippy and undergraduate-irritated and I thought, “Oh God, he’s just too old—he really doesn’t get it.” I do not know what he thought. He had probably been through something like this many times, and maybe no one in that little scene pleased him either.
Bearing all of these Langstons in mind, I’m going to read “Final Call.” And I want you to remember that all the lines are in capital letters, and the last line is in tiny, tiny print.