If a teacher would have asked me in 1960 or maybe even 1970, “Have you read any of Langston Hughes’ poems?” I would have said, “Langston, who?” Before talk about Langston Hughes I need to inform the reader of my own experience to better understand African-American culture, which would be not unlike the experiences of many Minnesotans, especially the elderly population.

I came from a small 99% white community in southern Minnesota. I had no experiences of any kind in getting to know the African-American community. One of my first experiences in getting close to Black students occurred when I was on my high school track team and we participated in the Mankato State Indian Relays. At the time Minneapolis Roosevelt High School had a large population of Black students and they would send their team to the relays and dominate the meet. I may have competed against Roosevelt students.

In our high school history classes the only mention of Black people happened when we discussed the Civil War and slavery. That was it. My experiences were no different from the students living in the hundreds of other small communities in Minnesota and I’m sure it was the same in Bemidji.

Because I realized that my education was lacking in getting to know Black people as it was in getting to know our Native American community, my wife, Kathy, and I took jobs teaching and living in the inner city of Camden, New Jersey, which was predominantly Black. It was that experience which helped me better understand the African-American culture.

Experiencing the protests of the 60s and 70s, inner city marches, Martin Luther King, Jr. speeches, the advent of Black studies in colleges, and the contributions of Black people in movies, music, sports and politics, and my experience in the Peace Corps all added to my own growth.

Newsletter signup for email alerts

Without those experiences I am sure I would have hung on to those subtle prejudicial notions and ignorance that arose occasionally in my hometown. It wasn’t because people had bad intentions, they just didn’t know any better. I say that with no intended malice. That’s just the way it was.

The pandemic has had some benefits, one of which is that all of us are probably reading more. Recently I went to my personal library and took out a book I had meant to read and it was the "Biography of Langston Hughes" written by Milton Meltzer. It was written for high school students in 1968, one year after Hughes’ death. At the time the term “Negro” was used when talking about Black people.

Langston Hughes was a poet and according to his biographer, “Around the world he was heard as the voice of the American Negro, a designation that probably embarrassed him, for he knew that every writer speaks first for himself and himself alone.”

More importantly, “He portrayed Negro life and interpreted it for countless people at home and abroad.” No doubt had Langston Hughes’ poems and other writings been presented to students in the fifties and sixties, without question there would have been greater understanding of the African-American culture.

One of Langston Hughes most popular poems, which happened to be his first poem written at the age of eighteen is: “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This poem is mostly about one word, “perseverance.” It talks about how Black people existed throughout the world, underwent hardships and have survived and thrived. To this day, African-Americans have to show perseverance to endure the injustices heaped upon them whether it be regarding criminal justice or employment or education or the right to vote.

In his poem, “My People” he talks about the souls of Black people, which may have been the catalyst for the 1960’s “Black Is Beautiful” movement.

My People

The night is beautiful

So the faces of my people.

The stars are beautiful

So the eyes of my people.

Beautiful, also, is the sun.

Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Mo. He passed away in 1967, one year prior to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. He was an activist, poet, writer of novels and children’s books, and plays. He was a world traveler and a graduate of Lincoln University. He is, however, best known to be a leading American poet who was inspired to write poetry by a high school teacher. At some time in the future we will read the poems of Langston Hughes, take in their beauty and profound message and have no thought about him being black or white. He will be just a wonderful poet who happens to be black.

Riddle: What word begins with “E,” ends with “E” and only has one letter? It is not the letter “E.” Answer: Envelope. If you wish to be a writer, you have to write. Writing letters is a good way to start.


Thanks to students from TrekNorth High School, we now have a new public service announcement made possible by Paul Bunyan Broadcasting and KBUN reminding parents what they can do to help 100% of our students graduate.

John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.