A Commencement Letter from Langston Hughes, Shared with Margaret Bonds
We are in an age of marches, of collective protests against official policies and actions, of collective voicings of solidarity with the casualties and victims of those official perfidies. Whether they protest Republican lawmakers’ unswervingly cowardly refusal to take even modest steps to stop the epidemic of gun violence that plagues the U.S. today or the ecological havoc being wrought against our planet by a society addicted to fossil-fuel consumption, our marches continue to enact the philosophy of nonviolent resistance to injustice that was the keystone of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s.
And regardless of what occasions them, our marches signify that we have not abandoned hope — that we refuse to accept the unacceptable. That we believe that there is still hope. And that we foresee, somehow, someway, someday, a new beginning.
A new commencement.
That’s the spirit, too, behind a poem that Langston Hughes sent to the graduating class of 1959 at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago — a poem whose closing lines are a ringing exhortation: “We march! Americans together, we march!”
Langston Hughes would eventually publish this poem (with variants) under the title Youth, and I’ve read it before in that guise. But until recently (as in, this week) I didn’t realize that it was written as part of a commencement letter, an epistolary salutation to a group of young people in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood — and a poetic encouragement to them not to abandon hope, but rather to claim the tomorrow that was theirs to claim. Here is that letter (check out how he uses the reference to his own iconic poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers to frame that literary masterpiece not only as an expression of pride in Black heritage, but also as occasion for hope):
It’s a beautiful and vibrantly hopeful poem in its own right. But knowing that it was born of a commencement letter brings new layers of meaning — as does the fact that when Hughes gifted it to the broader world, having to remove the opening lines’ address to the class of ’59, he titled it Youth. At that point he was fifty-eight years old. (He’s usually said to have been born in 1902, but recent research has shown that he was actually born in 1901.) He didn’t know that eight years later he would be dead of prostate cancer, but he did know that he had (as the saying goes) more yesterdays than tomorrows — many more.
And so he gave this poem’s belief in new beginnings, in commencement, to the world under the title Youth. It was a way, I suppose, of addressing itself to those who, unlike him, had more tomorrows than yesterdays, and to remind older folks of enduring beauty that is the stuff of hope and commencement.
Langston Hughes shared that letter with Margaret Bonds, and she kept it (it survives in her papers in the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown University, shelfmark GTM130530 Box 1, folder 14). Why he shared it with her is unclear. Perhaps it was because of her own powerful and surpassingly beautiful setting of The Negro Speaks of Rivers. Perhaps she was somehow an intermediary to the immediate recipient of this letter, Ruby Clark (1920–1977). At this point, though, my best guess is that Hughes knew that Bonds, as a lifelong social-justice warrior — and one to whom discouragement was no stranger — would appreciate its message.
As should we. We today are still awash in the unacceptable. And so we today still need the message of hope that breathes into this little poem the sense that we are not at the end, but rather at the beginning, the commencement, of a better world that will, inevitably, come.
To close, my thanks to the Booth Family Center for Special Collections at Georgetown University for granting access to this beautiful letter, and to Professor Frederick Binkholder for his invaluable assistance in obtaining that access.