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Langston Lives

St. Louis marks the 100th birthday of a celebrated Missourian


One hundred years ago, Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo. Five years ago, local African-American cultural organization Divinity Inc. started a week-long festival to honor him and to celebrate poetry of all kinds. "Dream Explosion: The Langston Hughes Black Poetry Festival" chugs into the home stretch this week with presentations by noted poets Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez and Quincy Troupe, along with a reading of Hughes' works by actors Robert Guillaume (of Sports Night and Benson fame) and Beverly Todd.

The centennial of Hughes' birth brings "top African-American poets, scholars and thinkers to St. Louis," says transplanted St. Louisan Troupe. It also means a slew of events, including readings, panel discussions, speeches, poetry slams, parties and theatrical performances about Hughes, his poetry and more contemporary writing.

For those unfamiliar with Hughes, explains Troupe, "he wrote plays, short stories, novels, memoirs, columns and poetry. He is a seminal figure in American literature. He used the language of the common people to inform the rhythms and cadences of his work. Langston Hughes' work addresses not only African-Americans; it addresses the dilemma of living in America for everybody, coexisting, the old story of diversity and how does it really work." Hughes is also credited with introducing the feel of jazz to writing. His most recognized poem is probably "Harlem," which begins, "What happens to a dream deferred?..."

Troupe was selected to read Hughes' poetry, as well as his own, in Joplin at the unveiling of the new Langston Hughes postage stamp in February. He says that events such as "Dream Explosion" are too rare, that we could use a few more of them. "I think somebody ought to start a T.S. Eliot and a Marianne Moore poetry festival," he proclaims. "We should have as much poetry in St. Louis as we can."