A conversation between Natalie Diaz and Langston Hughes never could have happened, but I still imagine where it could have taken place. A café, most likely, overlooking the ocean bluffs in Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Hughes wrote The Ways of White Folks, or in Los Angeles, where the poet penned his only screenplay, for Way Down South. Both would be a short flight from Phoenix, where Diaz teaches nearby. Hughes would wear his standard jacket and tie, and maybe have a small gift, like a pen, ready with a smile for Diaz. Once settled in, undoubtedly, the two would have many ideas, and sorrows, and joys to share.
While Diaz’s rhapsodic and sensual verse in her Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Postcolonial Love Poem, our California Book Club pick for February, varies stylistically from Hughes’s rhythmic and principled stanzas, the sorrowful reflections, national perspectives, and tenacious spirits found in their poems seem to spring from similar hearts. Diaz writes from a Native experience and Hughes from a Black one, but the themes they grapple with, such as loneliness, racism, violence, and class, have universal significance. More regrettably, they are particularly American themes. And both poets know how to use language to expose their country, rebuke their country, and somehow, even at the edge of despair, find ways to redeem their country. If all hope were gone for America, why then in “Manhattan Is a Lenape Word” would Diaz ask, “How can a century or a heart turn / if nobody asks, Where have all / the Natives gone?”? One can only hope that reading her work can turn readers’ hearts, just as Hughes’s words influenced our country’s soul during the century following their publication.
Hughes died 11 years before Diaz was born, so in lieu of a personal meetup, here are four of Hughes’s poems that pair well with works from Postcolonial Love Poem. Whether they inspire you to discover or rediscover Hughes or to gain a new appreciation for Diaz’s writing, these poems are in powerful conversation with one another.
“I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land.”
Hughes’s poem about the brokenness of the American dream is as haunting today as it was when it first appeared in Esquire, in 1936. While the narrator still believes America can become what it was meant to be, the hurt, longing, and displacement of those written about prefigure the painful lines in poems like “That Which Cannot Be Stilled” in Postcolonial Love Poem: “America is the condition—of the blood and of the rivers, / of what we can spill and who we can spill it from. / A dream they call it, what is American.”
Among the celebrated poems in Hughes’s first collection, The Weary Blues, is “I, Too.” Relegated to the kitchen, where the Blacks must eat when company arrives, the narrator nonetheless states he will “laugh, / And eat well, / And grow strong.” The poem is a proud declaration of future equality in the face of segregation.
While Diaz does not encounter the type of discrimination that Hughes did as a Black man in the 1920s, her experiences growing up in the Fort Mojave Indian Village are marked by poverty and a general sense of being pushed aside by America. “Run’n’Gun” describes scenes from Diaz’s basketball days, when she and other kids from the “rez” had to practice with limited resources and cross railroad tracks to play “their bigger, whiter opponents.” Despite the odds, her team develops a playing style that allows it to win. She ends the poem on a note of hope with “While they slept, we / played our dreams.”
“Well, son, I’ll tell you: / Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” In “Mother to Son,” the narrator’s mother encourages her child to push past the challenges and wounds inflicted by society and to keep reaching for whatever lies ahead. If life is hard, she reminds him, it has been hard for her too. Similarly, in “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” Diaz’s mother prepares her for her “country’s burdens,” reminding her that her value does not come from others or what they think of her. The two poems reveal the power of spoken language and, unfortunately, how much America has yet to change.
One hundred years before Diaz wrote about the Mojave people’s understanding of rivers as the source of their bodies in “The First Water Is the Body,” Hughes published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Writers and critics regarded it as an instant classic. Written when Hughes was only 20 years old, the poem follows Black civilizations built upon mighty rivers, ranging from when “dawns were young” to “when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans.”