LOOKY HERE, AMERICA: THE RIOTS COME

Poet and activist Langston Hughes

Poet and activist Langston Hughes

Written by Devyn Springer

Last year after months of protesting and being angry at the world similar to how things are now, I wrote, "the world hands Black poets a mountain of Black rage and says, 'put it into words.' And we do our best, often times failing, but never without an honest try. We die every day, and we fail even more." I wanted to reflect on the role of the Black poet in movements and moments such as where we find ourselves now, with Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, and others along the spectrum of white nationalism running amok with impunity. My reflection on Black poetry and the role of Black poets lead me towards kinfolk like Audre Lorde, Amiri Baraka, Lucile Clifton, and Assata Shakur, among others, and I came to the realization that the world hands Black poets oceans full of Black rage and our job is to put it into words before we die. But really, I have grown to see this as only partially true, because as I revisited the words of Langston Hughes recently in his slightly less known poem Beaumont to Detroit: 1943 I realized that the role of the Black poet in times like these, which are times like always, is to create words that will never die, even if Black people, Black poets, are often dying. 

The poem was written in 1943, and its title is a reference to Beaumont, Texas and Detroit, Michigan, where two “race riots” occurred in a series of uprisings across the country that summer, during the height of U.S. involvement in World War 2. White rioting targeting Black and Latino workers took place in Alabama, Harlem, Los Angeles, and several smaller outbursts of white violence occurred in other cities. Wartime tension was already extremely high, and thousands of workers from across the south piled into several cities, creating an influx labor and deepening pre-existing tensions between white and non-white workers. In the case of the Beaumont riot, the tension finally popped once a rumor spread that a Black worker had raped a white woman, leading to a white mob of more than 4000 people who killed two Black men, left over 50 injured, and over 200 arrested. 

The relevancy of this poem to our current political climate is uncanny, as it's imagery and position are pointed at the Amerikan empire and all of the hypocrisies residing within it. Hughes opens the first stanza of the poem as if it's a letter to America, stating:

Looky here, America
What you done done–
Let things drift
Until the riots come.

Most obviously, I am instantly drawn to the imagery of an irresponsible America, one that he seems to be scolding through his use of "looky here," letting things "drift until the riots come." What occurred in Charlottesville last weekend was exactly this: America's worst parts drifting, freely, along with the liberals and centrists who enable those parts, until the riots came. To be clear, what occurred in Charlottesville was nothing short of a white riot, an act of domestic terrorism, and a flexing of impunity. On August 11th, dozens of white nationalist students from the University of Virginia marched around chanting racist and antisemitic remarks while carrying torches, conjuring up from within countless images as KKK-rallies of yesterday which looked and felt very similar. 

Now your policemen
Let your mobs run free
I reckon you don’t care
Nothing about me.

Again, the demonstrations in Charlottesville, much like the demonstrations and rallies I have witnessed at Stone Mountain, Georgia, show these words to be relevant and true. The policemen have demonstrated a duty to protect racists who protest, rally, and riot, while treating the rest of us who protest as criminals. As Langston says, I, too have seen the "mobs run free" as police line up with protective gear to guard KKK members, Neo-Nazis, and racists from peaceful counter-protesters. To date, I have counter-protested two KKK rallies in Georgia, and did on-the-ground reporting for another in Alabama, and at every event there were droves of officers surrounding the openly racist collectives to protect them and keep them at a distance from counter protesters. Even when they shouted "nigger," "faggot," and other racist, antisemitic, homophobic things towards the crowd of counter-protesters, all while armed with military grade weapons, the officers remained more concerned with the remarks and defensive actions of the counter-protesters. You don't care nothing about me.

In the next stanza of the poem Langston seems concerned with sending a message, or rather a warning we should heed, about the nature of the nature of the violence we are up against, how violence inspires violence, and the hypocrisy of those unable to look at what is done here at home. He states:

You tell me that hitler
Is a mighty bad man.
I guess he took lessons
from the ku klux klan.

Written in the midst of World War 2, these lines stand as both a testament of Langston's own politics as a Black, queer, communist activist who has faced immense violence and career-repression due to those things, and someone who has grown tired of the hypocrisy foundational to Amerika. By implying Hitler "took lessons from the Ku Klux Klan," a statement which was later revealed to be factually correct, Langston is drawing attention to the parallel violence of Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan, and questioning why the U.S. is so dedicated to fighting the monsters across the ocean while allowing the ones at home to rome free and flourish. Against, evoking this same parallel, he states in the next two stanzas: 

You tell me mussolini’s
Got an evil heart.
Well, it mus-a been in Beaumont
That he had his start–

Cause everything that hitler
And mussolini do,
Negroes get the same
Treatment from you.

It is within these stanzas that Langston's pointed, angry tone becomes a subversion, a questions. He wants to know how the white majority who enact violence on Black people in Amerika (in the context of this poem that violence is the Beaumont and Detroit race riots) can say with certainty their brand of fascism and racism is different from that of those they are actively fighting. He is asking, almost rhetorically, if location, nationality, and race are the only things that separates the violence him and his people have systemically, institutionally faced in Amerika with that of the violence abroad. The answer to his questions are answered in the questions themselves, as logical progression says that if he ends the stanza reminding you the 'Negroes' have experienced what Hitler and Mussolini do to people, then those domestic forces doing those things are just like the Nazis in his eyes. Such a transgression of language and subversion of hypocrisy could only be put into language like this by a Black poet, because these words stand full of rage in such a way that only a Black poet could force into letters. 

And of course, we can't ignore the way that these words relate to our current political situation in a world where Trump has not only openly excused and embolden the Charlottesville white nationalists, but he also managed to equate their actions to that of those fighting against them. By referring to violence on "many sides" and asking "what about the 'alt-left' that came charging at the alt-right," he has now effected, on a world stage, equated the violence of the oppressor to the violence of the oppressed, thus demonizing liberation activists and existing in the same vein of rhetoric that other oppressive leaders have in the past. 

You jim crowed me
Before hitler rose to power–
And you’re STILL jim crowing me
Right now, this very hour.

Yet you say we’re fighting
For democracy.
Then why don’t democracy
Include me?

The stanzas of this poem always seem to bring me to the same conclusion, that every Black poet reaches a moment of rage, a moment of hopelessness wrapped in anger, that brings them to the same place another Black poet has already been. That Black poets are circular in nature, in a beautiful way that only we can because of our collective experiences, identities, and ongoing struggle of transgressing against the hypocrisies of whiteness. When we march and protest following a police killing, or in antiwar U.S.-intervention demonstrations, or anti-ICE rallies, we often chant "show me what democracy looks like!" and the crowd responds "this is what democracy looks like!" Admittedly this has been one of my least favorite chants for some time now, but when placed within the context of Langston Hughes' words on the hypocrisy of democracy within Amerika, it takes on a new sense of power and meaning.

If Hughes was being 'Jim Crowed' before Hitler rose to power, and was still Jim Crowed while he was in power, and we are still being Jim Crowed by mass incarceration and fundamentally biased policing now in 2017, what "democracy" is Amerika allowed to talk about? What "democracy" are they allowed to attempt to establish abroad through military intervention if they cannot get the damn thing right here domestically? Langston, an avid reader of Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Du Bois, is creating an underlying solidarity between the Black people of Amerika and the victims abroad facing the violence from Hitler and Mussolini, while complicating it with a necessary leftist critique of US imperialism and false democracy. The question then becomes, when we are done fighting these bad guys to aid our oppressed siblings overseas, a job that the USSR seems to be doing very well, who is allowed to fight similarly evil leadership here? I am reminded of Assata Shakur's words in an essay she wrote on July 4th, 1973, in which she states "Nixon and his crime partners have murdered hundreds of Third World brothers and sisters in Vietnam, Cambodia, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa [...] they call us murderers, but we did not murder over two hundred fifty unarmed Black men, women, and children, or wound thousands of others in the riots they provoked during the sixties." Calling into question the moral abjection created by the history she lived through since the time of Langston, she steps in to be the link between Langston's 1940s and our current 2017, when our country is responsible for aiding the deaths in Libya, the Congo, Haiti, Iraq, Syria, and other places. Assata, a Black poet and legend in her own right, mirrors Langston's questioning of "democracy" and hypocrisy, asking who are the real murderers the world should pay attention to.

Langston's final plea for clarity, a rather soberly forthright appeal to anger, speaks for itself. It is the stanza of tiredness, of Black tiredness, with four lines that leave me thinking, and thinking, and thinking, and thinking every time I read it. This poem towards the end feels much less like a questioning and more like a warning. A warning that we possible still have not heeded. It is in the first two lines of this poem and the last two lines of this poem that he does what Black poets do so well. He creates words that will live on, that will never die like we do, that remain relevant:

I ask you this question
Cause I want to know
How long I got to fight
BOTH HITLER–AND JIM CROW.