Thursday Poem: The Heart of Harlem by Langston Hughes

In light of last week’s horrific events at Charleston, I wanted this week to showcase poetry by brilliant African-American poets, and I didn’t know which one to choose. I don’t need terrorist attacks, or the continuing murder of innocent Black people in America, to make such an effort – if I did, I’d be posting these every single day. Which I honestly wouldn’t mind, given the sheer depth and range of outstanding poetry available, but I don’t have that kind of time or energy or capacity for heartbreak. As Claudia Rankine discusses here in her excellent NYT editorial, nobody has that capacity; we were not built to withstand grief applied on such a colossal scale.

With that said, as a writer of colour, a non-white poet, an Arab Australian – forgive the repetition, I’m having difficulty with identifiers these days, I keep writing them out to see if one will stick – I have been drawn from the outset to African-American writers, to their struggle. In Australia, Arab youths often play the same part ascribed to our African-American counterparts, both in popular culture and politically; in the first instance, seen as being suspicious, violent, attracted to and proponents of hip hop culture, and in the latter, as dangerous outsiders not compatible with mainstream society (read: white) and its values, as terrorists, as rapists, etc.

Similarly, as well, many of us grew up in poor government-subsidised suburbs rife with the systemic issues that were our daily lives but which only occasionally flared up into the kind of sensationalized stuff the media likes to run with – the drug dealing, welfare claims and gangland violence typically. So it’s no wonder we appropriated, consciously or unconsciously, many aspects of hip hop culture – a term I use as separate to Black culture as a whole, not as a synonym, just to be clear. Nor was it entirely a negative thing, for us growing up, it was more empowering than anything else (though I have a somewhat different opinion of it now broadly, being a bisexual man). But I digress, I just wanted to briefly outline my connection to this subject, these people, in such a way that highlights the similarities in the spaces we occupy in our respective nations today; beyond the symbolic cultural ties and narratives, it becomes a vastly different lived experience, to which I cannot attest.

I typically do not seek out particular voices for this little weekly segment of mine; I merely respond to whichever poem hit me hardest that day, that week, yet somehow, when I look back on the list of poets I’ve spoken about, it is fittingly diverse. I decided to be deliberate in my choice this week in part because of Claudia Rankine’s searing writing in the piece linked to above; I recognized how often the Black voices I was hearing in my day to day life were voices strained with pain, with grief, with rage and loss. Recognised that many of the stories I was reading were acts of memorial, that the deluge of poetry blurred into the names of victims; this is a song they have always been singing, a poem and a grief constantly being updated. But it is not the only one I’ve heard, nor need it be the only one discussed, and so I found myself thinking of one of my favourite poets, Langston Hughes, and one of my favourite poems, The Heart of Harlem.

It is not an inconsequential jaunt, and it is not without the context of oppression or suffering; it speaks to the realities I’ve discussed, but it’s also a deeply joyous poem brimming with his love for this place, his home, Harlem, with its hardships and all. I love its rhythm — Hughes is in a category of his own there — I love the lyricism, the evocation of this landscape; I love its uncompromising love, and the fierceness that runs throughout. The message here is a powerful one, and it is outlined from the beginning, which is that Harlem and indeed any place, is so much more than the structures, the buildings and institutions which govern it, it is the people themselves. I can’t quite the spacing entirely right (copying it out of the book) but here it is in full:

The Heart of Harlem

The buildings in Harlem are brick and stone
And the streets are long and wide,
But Harlem’s much more than these alone,
Harlem is what’s inside—
It’s a song with a minor refrain,
It’s a dream you keep dreaming again.
It’s a tear you turn into a smile.
It’s the sunrise you know is coming after a while.
It’s the shoe that you get half-soled twice.
It’s the kid you hope will grow up nice.
It’s the hand that’s working all day long.
It’s prayer that keeps you going along—
That’s the Heart of Harlem!

It’s Joe Louis and Dr. W. E. B.,
A stevedore, a porter, Marian Anderson, and me.
It’s Father Divine and the music of Earl Hines,
Adam Powell in Congress, our drives on bus lines.
It’s Dorothy Maynor and it’s Billie Holiday,
The lectures at the Schomburg and Apollo down the way.
It’s Father Shelton Bishop and shouting Mother Horne.
It’s the Rennie and the Savoy where new dances are born.
It’s Canada Lee’s penthouse at Five-Fifty-Five.
It’s Small’s Paradise and Jimmy’s little dive.
It’s 409 Edgecombe or a cold-water walk-up flat—
But it’s where I live and it’s where my love is at
Deep in the Heart of Harlem!

It’s the pride all Americans know.
It’s the faith God gave us long ago.
It’s the strength to make our dreams come true.
It’s a feeling warm and friendly given to you.
It’s that girl with the rhythmical walk.
It’s my boy with the jive in his talk.
It’s the man with muscles of steel.
It’s the right to be free a people never will yield.
A dream…a song…half-soled shoes…dancing shoes
A tear…a smile…the blues…sometimes the blues
Mixed with the memory…and forgiveness…of our wrong.
But more than that, it’s freedom—
Guarded for the kids who came along—
Folks, that’s the Heart of Harlem!

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