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3 AfricanDiasporicRe-Placing Race and Environment in the Poetry of Helene Johnson and Langston Hughes Hughes’s 1921 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” seeks a version of the “vast terraqueous globe” that Whitman pursued, its routing/rooting in river systems driven by a particular investment in African diasporic and African American sensibilities. The similarities between this poem and Whitman’s “Passage to India” in creating linkages through content and poetic form among disparate global geographies are reflective of the broader continuities we can draw between Whitman and the modernist period. Hughes’s depth of affinity for “Old Walt,” to cite the title of his 1954 poem about the poet, is little surprise.1 In “Calls Whitman Negroes’ First Great Poetic Friend, Lincoln of Letters,” one of several Chicago Defender columns Hughes published on Whitman, Hughes describes him as “the greatest of American poets” not only because of his pioneering commitment to “the basic precepts of American democracy as applying to everyone, white or black,” but also because of his innovations as “the great pioneer of ‘free verse’ in America, taking his rhythms from the rolling sonorities of human speech and the majestic poetry of the Bible” (11).2 As George Hutchinson has observed, Hughes was not merely working within the Whitmanian tradition but actively responding to his explicit invitation in generating an “African American–based poetic syncretism” (“Langston” 20). Whitman was in this way a notable exception to the canonical, Anglo-American tradition of literature and learning from Race and Environment in the Poetry of Helene Johnson and Langston Hughes | 77 which Hughes felt the need to distance himself upon the start of his maritime adventures in his early twenties. In the opening of volume 1 of his autobiography , The Big Sea, he recounts the grand gesture of throwing over the rail of the SS Malone “all the books I had had at Columbia, and all the books I had lately bought to read,” liberating himself at the start of his first journey to Africa of literature that was like “a million bricks” weighing down his heart (3). In a draft version of the text, he had planned to say he had tossed everything but kept Leaves of Grass, positioning this seminal work by Whitman as a category apart from the literature that he felt was oppressive (Rampersad, The Life 414n72).3 Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” the central focus of this chapter, evokes this sense of connection to Whitman on a number of levels. We can note in this poem, as George Hutchinson has done, a “triply descended ‘I’” that looks back to the blues, to spirituals, and to Whitman’s inclusive and absorptive “I” (“Langston” 21). But we can also find in both “Passage to India” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” a “terraqueous globe” in which globality springs from water systems—for Whitman, the ocean, and for Hughes, rivers . More important, both writers share a common engagement with major geographic discourses of the moment and innovative efforts to use poetic form, particularly anaphoric parataxis, as a space-collapsing technique that advances a democratic reconfiguring of global geography. While Whitman’s cosmographical oneness presents an alternative to the nation, Hughes’s geographical consolidation of African diasporic geography challenges the seemingly fixed and fixative ideas about both nation and race. Unlike the modernist tradition embodied by Whitman, African American considerations of the environment and the landscape have been understandably complicated by multiple historical legacies that overdetermine African American and African diasporic connections with the natural environment: forcible removal from Africa and then forced agricultural labor in the Americas under slavery, land dispossession in Africa under colonialism, and the often rural, wooded settings of lynchings. In her preface to her powerful anthology of poetry, Black Nature, Camille Dungy notes the wide variety of poetic strategies and responses to nature, generated partly because of this “manner in which the natural world has been used to destroy, damage, or subjugate African Americans” in a larger “active history of betrayal and danger in the outdoors ” (xxvi). Hughes’s 1924 poem “Lament for Dark Peoples” registers the impact of being severed from a beloved African environment by the advent of slavery: “They drove me out of the forest. / They took me away from the 78 | TheGeopoeticsofModernism jungles. / I lost my trees. / I lost my silver moons” (CP1 39).4 The speaker’s factual, declarative statements outline a loss of beauty that contrasts with his new reality, imprisonment in a West that...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813055145
Related ISBN
9780813060514
MARC Record
OCLC
900158401
Pages
208
Launched on MUSE
2015-02-13
Language
English
Open Access
No
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