In the 1970s I traveled to Cuba for an international writers’ conference. After I had read a paper to an appreciative audience, some of the organizers asked me if I wanted anything. I said, “Yes. I’d like to meet Nicolás Guillén.” They hesitated, said he wasn’t feeling well, told me they would attempt to arrange the meeting. Two hours later, they gathered me up to visit him and as I entered his office he was standing in the middle of the room, feet planted on Cuban earth, legs no longer strong, but arms strong like Elizabeth Catlett’s black women’s arms. He said, “Sonia Sanchez. Sonia Sanchez. Como Langston Hughes. Como Langston Hughes.”

And I smiled a smile of recognition, folded myself into his arms, and he hugged me so hard that I felt I couldn’t breathe and I thought, hold it, I didn’t come all this way to die in Cuba. Then I realized that if I just stopped struggling, leaned into his breath, I would be okay. We would be okay. And I leaned into his breath and we began to breathe as one. That is what Langston Hughes’s poetry/plays/short stories told us. The necessity to learn how to lean into each other’s breath and breathe as one.

So listen. Listen, Gentlepersons. I come to you this night with two voices. I come to praise this man. This brother. This genius. This holy man.

This weaver of words threading silver
And gold into our veins.
I come with the voice of the praiser.
I come with the voice of the poet.
I come to you to praise this man who
gave us his eyes and we shone, became perennial,
Who piloted us into the slow bloodstream of America
And we tagged behind, walking on
tiptoes, heard his words, like jazz
like blues, like seculars agitating
Keeping us on the edge of ourselves. Breathing
in our own noise and we became
small miracles . . .

Something underneath your hands, Langston man

Something mighty, something human, something

radical in your hands
accenting our blue flesh
observing us in a familiar city called Harlem
New York, the world.
Where we returned as birth. Blood. Water.
Where we became traveling men and women
turning corners
Moving like black trains across the country
Landless men and women immortal in our
Living with nothing.
Dying from everything.

And when you said, ask yo mama and
we attempted to do so,
The country turned over in its blood
Said What Mama, Mammy, Sapphire,
Aunt Jemima you talking bout.
Said Who yo mama is my mammy
and all of our mamas stood still
blowing black in the wind . . .

And you gave us early morning names.

Madame Alberta K. Johnson. Jess B. Simple.
Susanna Jones. Scottsboro Boys. Guillén.

Lorca. Lumumba. Nkrumah. Nasser. Fidel.
Bebopmen imploding spaces. And how to resist
in the “quarter of the negroes.”

You gave us the still Harlem air.
The darker brother star
The Christ in Alabama sky.
The knowledge that we were
two nations under one America.

So much life coursing through your pages, man.
So many vacancies filled by your eyes, man.

You made us figure out the humor in tragedy,
the tragedy in humor. Taught us what
we were really missing in our lives
while we lived “20 years in ten.”
You knew already “that we make our
history, but only so much of it as
we are allowed to make.”

So listen. Gentlemen. Gentlewomen.
Pull your hearts out of your armpits.
Get your tuxedos out of mothballs.
Put your long red dress on girl
and snap your breasts into place,
As we go sailing on Langston Hughes’s tongue
Living. Speaking without a crutch.
This is his centennial. His birthday.
Tonight is a political act.“Hoy es. Hoy ha llegado.”
It is today. Today has arrived.

“Hoy es hoy. Ha llegado este mañana.”

Today is today. Tomorrow has arrived.

Woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.
I say, woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.
Woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.

Gonna live. Gonna love. Gonna resist just like he did.

And you can’t ask yo mama bout that.
You got to do it yo self. Ask yo self. Can
I resist, can I resist for Langston,
for our children, for humankind?

Woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.
I say, woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.
Woke up this morning with my eyes on Langston.

Gonna live. Gonna love. Gonna resist, resist,
Resist—just like himmmmm—