Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Which poem did Langston Hughes Select in the 1948 Scholastic Art & Writing Awards?

1948 was an intense time to be a high school student in the United States. The world was just recovering from World War II, and in that same year the Supreme Court ruled that religious education in public schools was in violation of the Constitution. But the winners of the 1948 Scholastic Awards’ poetry division were about to be part of literary history: esteemed poet, Langston Hughes, was judging their work!

Langston Hughes is best known as the “poet laureate” of the Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary movement of the 1920s. Like many of the students who submitted writing for The Scholastic Awards during these years, Langston Hughes was concerned about the political climate. He wrote poems against Fascism in Europe, but over the course of his 40+ year career his main inspirations came from African-American culture, history and his own upbringing. He wrote about class issues and the great contributions of African and African Americans to world culture. In addition to judging for The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1948, Hughes continued to support the work of young writers. He conducted a workshop for young writers in Chicago in 1949 and has been credited with supporting famous writers early in their careers such as Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple.

One young writer was selected by Langston Hughes (and three other Poetry judges) for a Third Award in Poetry in The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in 1948. Echoing the 1936 poem Strange Fruit written by Abel Meeropol (pseudonym: Lewis Allan) and famously sung by Billie Holiday, the student-written poem Danse Macabre is a protest against racism and darkly references the practice of lynching, whereby blacks and civil rights protestors were killed by angry mobs through hanging.

Danse Macabre

Soft on the wind
Are the feet
Of the prancing dead.

Hanging in the air
Are whirling limbs
In ungainly tread.

Dipping down
Then gaily around go, while
Children ask in wondering sigh;

“Tell us brothers
Why dance you
So high.”

Image Source: Senior Scholastic, 1947.


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