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A KU Professor Calls For 'Meaningful Critiques' Of Today's Problems In The Spirit Of Langston Hughes

Library of Congress
The iconic Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes said he considered himself a Kansan. Now University of Kansas professor Anthony Bolden is editing a publication to 'provide a source of vision and potential analysis of our current situation.'

Though Langston Hughes began his writing career nearly a century ago, Anthony Bolden says Hughes continues to speak to the current social and political climate — better than most contemporary writers do.

"In many ways, the current group of writers, that is to say creative writers and scholars, have yet to offer meaningful critiques or explanations for why we’re experiencing some of the things that are happening, or to demonstrate a clear understanding of the critical problems that we face," Bolden says.

Hughes is best known for his role in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. He published 15 books of poetry, but was also a novelist, nonfiction writer, children’s book author, and playwright. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, and spent his childhood around Lawrence, Topeka and Kansas City, once telling a Lawrence audience "I sort of claim to be a Kansan."

A University of Kansas professor of African and African-American Studies, Bolden is the new editor of a relaunched version of the Langston Hughes Review, a publication about, and inspired by, Hughes and his work. Bolden hopes to project Hughes' vision onto 21st century culture.

Credit Anthony Bolden
Professor Anthony Bolden speaking at a Langston Hughes luncheon earlier this year.

"His understanding of very fundamental issues and circumstances in the U.S. provide a source of vision and potential analyses of our current situation," Bolden says.

The review, which went out of print in 2011 after running for 29 years, seemed timely and necessary to revitalize. Bolden says the conversation he wants to continue involves "alternative aesthetics" and "alternative forms of art" that are meaningful and accessible to everyone, not only academics.

The issue that's out now includes the proceedings of a 2017 conference at Princeton University, "Remembering Langston Hughes: Life and Legacy 50 Years Later."

Subsequent issues, published twice a year, will be open for submissions of essays, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, art, and photography usually organized around a theme.

One future issue, Bolden says, will feature Chinese scholars' work on Hughes. Another will be a celebration of Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes' friend and literary collaborator, that is tentatively titled "Black Love: Celebrating Zora Neil Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God,' 80 Years Later."

Penn State University Press will publish the Langston Hughes Review twice a year.

In one essay on the timeliness of Hughes' work, Stanford historian James T. Campbell argues that society needs Hughes now more than ever.

"In a world rife with racism and gratuitous cruelty, inured to lying and shockingly devoid of empathy," Campbell writes, "the qualities that defined Hughes and his work — kindness, compassion, wry humor, moral stamina, stubborn hopefulness — are precisely the qualities that we need to survive, both as individuals and as a society."

Hughes's connection to Kansas, Bolden says, is one reason the board of the Langston Hughes Society (a national group of scholars, teachers, writers, artists and other interested individuals) thought that the University of Kansas would be an appropriate base for the revamped review.

"I would say that what his writings exemplify is — at least to a larger degree than is currently the case — is an expression of African-American life that isn’t completely mediated by capitalist institutions or institutions that are funded and-or express values and points of view of the elite," Bolden says.

He suggests that the musicians Kendrick Lamar and Jamila Woods come close to championing blues and jazz in a similar way to Hughes, but not many others in the mainstream do.

"I think as we progress in time, I think his perception of reality and his wit — we don’t find a lot of people who have the capacity for humor any more; Hughes delighted in humor and he was capable of using it effectively himself — a lot of the qualities and characteristics of his writing, I think, will become increasingly valuable," Bolden says, "to the extent that we look at them carefully in the 21st century."

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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