Few poets can claim a final resting place as, well, poetic as Langston Hughes. His ashes are buried under the floor of the lobby of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, beneath a mosaic cosmogram that includes lines from his classic poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Hughes, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance whose work aimed to capture the whole of the African-American experience, was only 18 when he wrote that poem.
Or was he?
Recently, a writer’s casual online search for one of his own ancestors accidentally led to a wealth of unknown documentation of Hughes’s early life, including evidence of a different birth year.
Here’s a look at one example of how digitized newspaper databases are throwing open new doors of discovery — and at what difference that year might actually make.
Hughes, the story has long gone, was born near midnight on Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Mo.
“The date of his birth he would take on faith,” the scholar Arnold Rampersad wrote in his landmark 1986 biography, since Missouri law at the time did not require that births be recorded. It’s also the date given on the cosmogram at the Schomburg Center.
But one evening earlier this summer, Eric McHenry, a poet who teaches at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., stumbled on evidence that the birth year was wrong.
Mr. McHenry was having dinner with a fellow poet who also grew up in Topeka. Both had ancestors who had been active in populist state politics in the late 19th century, and they wondered if the two men had known each other.
Later that night, a Google search led Mr. McHenry to newspapers.com, and an 1894 article about his friend’s great-great-grandfather speaking at his great-great-great-grandfather’s memorial service. “It was kind of a mind-blowing moment,” Mr. McHenry said.
Intrigued by the possibilities of the site — one of a number that has digitized and made available millions of pages of historical newspapers — he started entering the names of notable African-American cultural figures with Topeka roots, including Coleman Hawkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, the artist Aaron Douglas and Hughes.
“I was just bouncing from name to name,” he said.
But he stopped short when he came across a brief note on the society page in The Topeka Plaindealer, an African-American weekly published under various names between 1899 and 1958, with a mundane update on the health of “Little Langston Hughes”:
It was from Dec. 20, 1901 — the year before Hughes, who spent his early years in Topeka and Lawrence, Kan., was supposedly born.
“I was wondering if I should wake up my wife to tell her,” Mr. McHenry recalled. “I really struggled to fall asleep.”
It was possible that the item referred to another person with the same name. But the next morning, Mr. McHenry did a more targeted search, and found an item from May 17, 1901, listing some recent visitors to town, including “Mrs. Carrie Hughes and little son Langston,” who had been on their way to Buffalo:
Hughes’s mother’s name was Carrie. And biographers had already established that James Hughes, Langston’s father, who had left the family shortly after his son’s birth, was living in Buffalo.
“That’s when I thought, ‘I got it, it has to be the same Langston Hughes,’” Mr. McHenry said.
He later then found a third item, from Jan. 17, 1902, referring to a visit by “Mrs. C.M. Hugnes and son.” (Yes, early newspapers had a lot of typos.) That gave him a total of three references to Hughes before his supposed Feb. 1, 1902, birthday.
Mr. McHenry, who freely admits he is not a Hughes expert, shared his finds with Hughes scholars in Kansas and beyond.
The first person he contacted was Denise Low, co-author of the book “Langston Hughes in Lawrence.” She did some of her own quick digging in digitized records, and found three consecutive state or federal censuses — from 1905, 1910 and 1915 — giving an age for Hughes that corresponded to a birth year of 1901.
Mr. McHenry also contacted Dr. Rampersad, a retired professor at Stanford, who called the newly unearthed evidence compelling, even if it doesn’t upend our understanding of Hughes.
“It is on the one hand unimportant, but on the other hand quite important,” said Mr. Rampersad, whose own research was done well before the era of digitization. “You want to know when your subject was born.”
Hughes was born into a distinguished family. His grandmother’s first husband was a comrade of John Brown and died in the 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry. One of his great-uncles was the first black congressman from Virginia.
His mother, Carrie, worked for a time as a traveling agent for The Plaindealer. As with many newspapers at the time, its society page served as a kind of proto-Facebook, chronicling the minutest doings of a community that was often ignored by the white press.
“Do you want to know where your friends are, who they visit, what they are doing? What the race is doing in general? Read the Plaindealer,” went a sales pitch just below the first item Mr. McHenry found.
So far, Mr. McHenry has discovered more than a dozen published references to Hughes from his infant and toddler years. One item from 1907 reported that he had injured himself falling into a rosebush; a week later, another noted that he was better.
“I can’t imagine that many other major literary figures got into the paper so frequently before they were even school-age,” Mr. McHenry said.
Hughes’s mistaken birth year seems to have been part of the narrative of his life from early on, and may well have stemmed from the adults in his life.
Initially, Mr. McHenry wondered if Hughes’s mother, who sent him to the white elementary school in Topeka, rather than the “colored” school across the tracks, hadn’t waited an extra year to enroll him in first grade, to provide some protection against racism.
“Maybe his mother deemed it advantageous for him to be older, and for them not to know,” Mr. McHenry said.
In his memoir “The Big Sea,” Hughes wrote of that school: “All the teachers were nice to me, except one who sometimes used to make remarks about my being colored. And after such remarks, occasionally the kids would grab stones and tin cans out of the alley and chase me home.”
It remains to be seen what scholars will make of the new information, and what further searches might turn up as new sources are added to online databases like newspapers.com, the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America and the Obsidian Collection, a nonprofit database of African-American legacy newspapers that made its debut last month.
But Kevin Young, the director of the Schomburg Center and a poet (who also, as it happens, grew up in Topeka), suggested that the confusion over Hughes’s age resonates with broader themes of improvisation and tale-telling in African-American autobiography.
Louis Armstrong, he noted, liked to say he was born on the resonant date of July 4, 1900. (Baptismal records list the more mundane birth date of Aug. 4, 1901.) Zora Neale Hurston took 10 years off her age when she enrolled in high school in Baltimore at age 26, and shaved off a full 19 on her second marriage license.
Even if the change in Hughes’s birth year came from his mother, “such reinvention does connect with other kinds of black improvisation,” Mr. Young said.
So will the birth year on the mosaic at the Schomburg itself need revising? Not necessarily, Mr. Young said.
The new information, he said, “doesn’t change the beauty of the cosmogram,” which was dedicated at the stroke of midnight on Feb. 1, 1991 — which would have been Hughes’s 89th (or rather 90th?) birthday. (He died in 1967.)
“I keep thinking about how the archive is still alive,” Mr. Young said. “We’re still learning things about people we already know a lot about.”
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