In 1949, Langston Hughes wrote,
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
Langston’s Lawrence, a new short documentary directed by University of Kansas Film and Media Studies Professor Madison Davis Lacy, explores how Hughes’ lifelong rejection of compromise and fear grew partly out of his experiences as a young boy in Kansas.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Hughes lived in Lawrence until his mid-teens.
Through interviews with Hughes scholars and others, the 7-minute film serves as a useful introduction to Lawrence's impact on Hughes’ work throughout his life as well as the complicated relationship the city had with its black citizens. It also offers context: While heralded as the heart of Bleeding Kansas and an anti-slavery settlement, Lawrence was still segregated, with contradictory policies and inconsistent social expectations that stayed with Hughes throughout his life as a writer and activist.
Denise Low, a former Kansas Poet Laureate, explains in the film that in early 20th century Lawrence, some public parts of town were strictly segregated while others weren’t, and school segregation was divided by grade and sometimes within individual classrooms.
And in the summer of 1910, the Lawrence Daily Journal invited “all of the children” of Lawrence to a birthday party for the paper. The event promised a variety of entertainments and treats, but the writers on the editorial board quickly followed up the invitation with a clarification: They understood that “colored children have no desire to attend a social event of this kind.”
J. Edgar Tidwell, a professor of English at the University of Kansas, traces the “disappointment and bewilderment” Hughes felt in having this experience at age 8 to Hughes' 1942 poem “Merry-Go-Round,” which concisely derides the absurdity of spatial segregation.
As Tidwell and others in the film note, until recently, Hughes was an underappreciated son of Lawrence, while Hughes himself believed that one had to “understand his childhood in Lawrence” in order to understand his poetry.
Though it is short, Langston’s Lawrence is part of a much larger project Tidwell is working on with Randal Jelks, a professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Kansas; Carmaletta M. Williams, a former professor of English and African American Studies at Johnson County Community College; and several other scholars.
In a conversation with Steve Kraske on KCUR's Up to Date, Jelks said the bigger project will be a two-part biography called I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled.
Hughes was a rare writer of his generation whose work is still pertinent to today's young people, Williams told Kraske.
"His work transcends that time — the people, actions and political situations still apply today," she said.
Langston’s Lawrence debuts at 6 p.m. on Friday, January 27 at the Watkins Museum of History, followed by a panel with Hughes scholars Randal Jelks, Edgar Tidwell, and Carmaletta M. Williams. An additional screening and discussion with the same participants is scheduled for February 1 at the Lawrence Arts Center. Admission to both programs is free.
Melissa Lenos is an Assistant Professor of English at Donnelly College, where she teaches film studies, composition, literature and popular culture. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org