Thursday, February 9, 2017

Finding the Last Lost Generation: Langston Hughes and the Deep of Rivers

In my quest to reach back to the last Lost Generation (those who would've been roughly the age that Generation X is now, a century ago) I am looking back to see what advice, hope, or wisdom they left for us. An essential voice from among that generation was Langston Hughes. Not only was he part of the Harlem Renaissance, he was a contributor to classic literature that has since been read and studied by multiple generations.

My favorite people have this way of balancing wit and the heaviness of life with grace. Through my growing-up years, pieces of Langston Hughes' poetry would pop up in the literature classes I took. For weeks afterwards, his message would resonate in my mind. With each piece, he would would open my eyes more and more to the suffering endured by African Americans.  More recently, I made my way through the perceptive and unshakable poetry he wrote through the earlier decades of the 20th century.  Hughes' words and stories, like his ancestral heritage, covered a wide range of American geography and beyond. He wrote of the stress and frustration of the people in crowded cities struggling to pay their rent and of the pain and isolation of people in small rural towns, tired from working the land.  

In my first experience of the Mississippi River as a nine-year-old, I stood in awe of the potent water as I floated across it on a ferry.  It was powerful and magnificent, and I could feel the history of it emanating all around me: an intense sorrow and a thousand untold stories lifting from it, mixing with the heavy summer humidity.

I felt something similar as a college student the first time I saw the Kansas River from the window of a plane as it wound through the frozen winter circles and squares of farmland, like the patches on a threadbare quilt. Not so long after that, I saw Lawrence, Kansas for the first time where Langston Hughes spent most of his childhood and walked the same streets that my paternal grandfather from the GI Generation had walked during his days as a professor at the University of Kansas. How strange it is to walk where someone walked that you feel you know on some level, yet their life ended before yours began.  Sometimes it seems that we can get a glimpse (or maybe some fleeting electrical impulse) of the connection we have to those people by walking where they walked, by opening the door of some small shop on some busy street, hoping their hand once touched the same door handle.  Of antiquated doors that I pulled open to small shops or buildings around the university - on Massachusetts Street, or Tennessee Street, or Kentucky Street in Lawrence, Kansas, I can only hope that my grandfather, or that Langston, opened one of those same doors.

...I've known rivers: 
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins. 

My soul has grown deep like the rivers...

When a generation, a Lost Generation in particular, who grows up and lives most of their life in a time of Crisis, what we can do is to take what wisdom we have gained from our suffering and to use it to make the world more just, with our stories, with our voices. Hughes wanted an America where everyone is free and equal, and his words are just as relevant today as they were when he wrote them. His writing is one of the reasons that we see classic literature as necessary to culture - it is a way to remind of us of what wrongs we are likely to fall back into as a society if we are not vigilant.  In fact, many of the things that were wrong with society when he wrote his words are still wrong.  Hughes stressed racial consciousness in his writing and that message is just as needed now as it was a century ago.   

It sometimes seems that when you stand by a river, you can feel, even if just for a moment, everyone who has stood there at that same place before you. I know it's true of the Kansas River and of the Mississippi, I imagine it is true of the Euphrates and the Nile. It is the experience of standing quietly, intently, by rivers, and in searching for the wisdom of previous generations that our souls can grow deeper.  Let your soul grow deep.  


(c) 2017 All rights reserved.  Writing and and photography by Chloe Koffas.  Photo: Boise River, Idaho

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