Before someone points out that the title of today's column contains the word "ain't", those aren't my words but those of Langston Hughes, the poet, playwright, novelist and social activist born in Joplin in February 1902. It's a quote from a poem titled Mother to Son, written in the colloquial voice of the mother.
Since February is Black History Month and Hughes was not only a black writer but a moving force in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920's, it seemed fitting to share a little about the man behind those words.
Hughes was born in Joplin, in a part of town called East Town, a working class area adjacent to the mines. In 1873, East Town had merged with Murphysburg to become Joplin but the name lingered long after the two settlements became one.
Murphy Boulevard travels to the area once known as East Town in honor of its' founder.
Another main thoroughfare in Joplin is known as Langston Hughes Broadway.
The street's original name was Broadway and when efforts began in the 1970's to rename it in honor of Joplin born Hughes, some local residents objected. They wanted to preserve the name that had long been in use so a compromise was made. It is also or once was part of the Mother Road, Historic Route 66 as it traveled through Joplin.
However, Hughes didn't grow up in Joplin. His family, like many other black residents, left Joplin after the lynching of a black man, Thomas Gilyard, took place at Second and Wall on April 15, 1903.
Hughes and his family relocated to Lawrence, Kansas. They later lived in Illinois and Ohio, where he graduated from high school.
As a young man, Hughes headed for New York City where he lived until his death in 1967.
His poetry resonates with the voice of the common man and is relatable to all.
As a student at Neosho High School, in one of Mrs. Millie Stover's literature classes, I was first introduced to Hughes' poetry. One of our assignments was to create a book of poetry, either a collection of our favorites or of our own original work. I chose to put together an anthology of my favorites and Hughes poem, Mother to Son, was among the poems.
The poem, that reads in part,
"Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on."
At the end, the mother admonishes her son not to turn back or sit down on the stairs because it's hard to keep going. Those words resonated with me. The struggle described is a universal one, a message of hope and the strength to never surrender.
I completed my education at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, where Hughes was born. It's a small but tenuous tie to one of the most important writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes wrote much more than poetry. He breathed life into a fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, who became a sort of spokesman for the black community in an often humorous but realistic way. Semple appeared in Hughes' columns in the Chicago Defender from 1943 until his death but that's another story.
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair but I'm climbing onward and upward.
-Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy is a staff writer, a freelance writer and published author. She writes a weekly column for The Neosho Daily News.