Poems for Today: The Mystery of the American Dream
Poems by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Artwork by Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000)
As the country roils in protests for justice amidst a raging pandemic, it's a good time to share the work of two people who used their art and words for social justice. They were some of the nation's civil rights frontrunners whose work lives on in museums and archives, as relevant and inspiring today as it was at the time of its creation.
I Dream A World
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn.
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind—
Of such I dream, my world!
George Washington Bush, an African-American pioneer who dared to travel West on the Oregon Trail to settle in Washington Territory, was painted by Jacob Lawrence in 1989. Bush chose Washington because homesteading laws in Oregon prohibited claims by non-whites. Here, jubilant at making it to Fort Vancouver, the mixed party celebrates at the end of a long journey. (Title: Christmas 1844, Fort Vancouver is a Temporary Halting Place Before They go to Puget Sound Country. Panel 4 of 5, Washington State Historical Society Collection)
When you turn the corner
And run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left.
Portrait of Captain Carlton Skinner of the USS Sea Cloud, the first integrated ship in the US Navy. Jacob Lawrence served aboard that ship after being drafted in to the Navy during World War II. Skinner encouraged the young artist to continue his work while serving at sea. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)
We hope you'll take the time to ponder these poems and venture into the lives and works of Hughes and Lawrence. Their work provides both reflection and a window of hope for a more equal future.
Poet Langston Hughes was born James Mercer Langston Hughes. Originally from Joplin, Missouri, he made his way to New York City where he made a career as a playwright, columnist, activist, and poet. With his first poem published in 1921, he soon became one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that established Harlem as a black cultural mecca in the 1910-1930s.
Click the portrait at right to view a short video about Langston Hughes on Biography.com.
Artist Jacob Lawrence spent 16 years as an art professor at University of Washington. Yet his career started long before that, when he won national attention through his 60-panel migration series. He was just 23 at the time. Lawrence developed a signature style labeled "dynamic cubism" that coupled a unique color-field technique with histories of the African-American condition.
Panel 4 of George Washington Bush Washington State Centennial Series, 1989; Washington State Historical Society. http://www.washingtonhistory.org/collections/item.aspx?irn=56889&record=35
Jacob Lawrence Biography, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Portrait of Captain Carlton Skinner by Jacob Lawrence. Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1990.65.1. https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/captain-skinner-31685
Langston Hughes Portrait, Wikimedia Commons.
Langston Hughes biography (video). Biography.com
Jacob Lawrence Portrait, Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Jacob Lawrence Migration Series: Kahn Academy, Smarthistory. YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4lgvB5cV5E