There are a number of booklists circulating social media to give audiences a better view of what it looks like to be black in the United States. But according to one Utah State University professor, the idea of connecting audiences to black culture reaches back nearly a century to American poet and author Langston Hughes’ international efforts.
Shane Graham, an associate professor of English at USU, said from the time Hughes first published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in 1921 until his death in 1967, he utilized emerging technology and transportation to create an international community of black writers. Thus emerged Graham’s new book, “Cultural Entanglements: Langston Hughes and the Rise of African and Caribbean Literature,” where he tracked correspondence between Hughes and other black writers across the U.S., Africa, Europe and the Caribbean.
“Hughes was very pragmatic and very resourceful, and as he saw these new technologies developing, he inevitably jumped on them and figured out how to use them, make connections with other writers and how to promote their work and promote his own work,” Graham said. “It was really important for this development of a sense of a black world that you’re not just having black writers working alone.”
Instead, via letter writing and traveling, Hughes formed an interconnected web of writers to share ideas and experiences from across the world. And with the explosion of the internet, Graham said that world has continued to grow.
For example, Salt Lake City musician Terrance Drisdom, who performs under the stagename “ERNE,” and his family recently released a single “Hold On” via YouTube with the caption “In a world plagued with pandemics, race wars, gender inequality, social injustice, intolerance, and just plain hate.. Where do we turn to? What do we do?”
In an interview with KRCL, Terrance said his brother, Tim, initially wrote the song after experiencing a racially-based attack, but with COVID-19 giving the family more time to record and produce, new lyrics were added to relate to the recent instances of police brutality and racial inequality throughout the country.
The song features footage of local Black Lives Matter protests and images of nurses and doctors working on the front lines and is meant to counter racism and isolation by inspiring connections and hope. Since the video’s May 28 release, it has more than 18,000 views.
Graham said on top of being a novelist, playwright and newspaper columnist, Hughes also wrote rhythmic poetry and “was always very interested in linking his poetry to music, to jazz, to the blues.” Hughes’s work was so flexible he could tailor it in each genre as an antidote to the time’s pervasive racism.
“I think he would be really inspired to see this sort of out-surge of support for the Black Lives Matter movement by a true multiracial coalition of people,” Graham said. “I think, really, what we’re seeing these last couple of weeks fulfills a lot of the ethos and the imperatives that drew Hughes throughout his life.”
According to USU’s Marisela Martinez-Cola, an assistant professor of sociology, though many parts of Utah seem culturally homogenous, it’s never too late for individuals to look to voices of color to better understand, and ultimately change, the systemic racism of the U.S.’s history.
“I don’t know how much we can change an institutional level, but I do know that institutions are made up of individuals,” she said. “And so it’s an individual level, people can make the promise or the commitment to start to educate themselves. And their children will end up learning from that as well and understand.”
Martinez-Cola added mistakes will be made in the process, but “those mistakes are learning opportunities, you know. Keep going because it is so worth the investment.”