July 31, 2020
By Ana V. Diez Roux, MD, PhD, MPH
This time, if you will indulge me, I will not write, at least overtly, about public health although perhaps after reading you will see a connection after all. This has been a strange summer indeed, a summer unlike any we have lived through. Perhaps because of this, I have struggled to find in this summer, in this conflicted, eye-opening and life-changing summer, something that reminds me of past summers, of what summer was to me when I was growing up. For I am sure you will agree, there is nothing as vital and as hopeful, as full of possibility, as the summers of one’s childhood.
When I think back about my summers, one of the things I remember the most is reading, reading non-stop in my mother's rocking chair, reading in the heat on the beach under an umbrella, reading at night, the lazy afternoon hum of summer cicadas floating in through my open window in Buenos Aires. The novels I read (because it was mostly novels) transported me to new places and new times, allowed me to live for a short time a different life from my own. So this summer, strange as it has been, I sought to recapture that feeling again. I turned to fiction in part for escape (I won’t deny it) but as often happens I found in what I read opportunities to reflect on today.
This summer I discovered the stories of Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes is known primarily as a poet, but he was incredibly prolific, writing short stories, novels, nonfiction, plays, movie scripts, and even operas. The collection of stories I read this summer in The Ways of White Folks are his earliest and perhaps most famous short stories. They are stunning and powerful and devastating. Like all good fiction and all great short stories, they condense truth into just a few pages. They are deceptively simple but hold within them layers of meaning relevant anytime and anywhere. And the stories of The Ways of White Folks are especially powerful today as protests in our streets call for an end to racism and the centuries of injustice experienced by Black Americans.
Langston Hughes was, as it turns out, quite an internationalist: He traveled to Mexico, Cuba, Nigeria, Spain, the Soviet Union, and Japan, among other countries. I was thrilled to learn that his poems influenced Nicolas Guillén (one of my favorites!), the famous Afro-Cuban poet, whom Hughes befriended and whose poems are gorgeous in their simplicity and music. Hughes covered the Spanish Civil War for Black U.S. newspapers and translated Federico Garcia Lorca into English. He was a great supporter of African artists and African literature and attended the inauguration of the first Governor General of independent Nigeria.
Reading the stories of Langston Hughes this summer reconnected me to the beauty of great literature, to the joy of reading a perfectly crafted short story, but it also connected me to today, to the many injustices that are still with us, in the United States and all over the world, injustices that are so important to public health.
Hughes wrote, as all writers do, from his own experience, and the specificity of it is what gives the stories their richness and truthfulness. But in writing about his own experience and his own history he wrote about humanity, and this is what gives the stories their power. I hope you may find time in your summer for beauty, and reflection, and perhaps for exploring Langston Hughes. As for me, this summer, I will do my best to keep reading….