By the year 1919 World War I was over. The country was experiencing the Great Migration. Africans were abandoning the South in droves and heading North in search of a better way. Seventy-four [Africans] were lynched
that year. Riots broke out in twenty-five
cities across America and the summer of 1919 was dubbed the Red Summer. The Liberator Magazine published a poem by Claude McKay entitled “If We Must Die” and the sprouts of the Harlem Renaissance were planted.
Germinated in Harlem, New York the “cultural capital of the black world,”
the Harlem Renaissance was cultivated by conditions which would traverse cultural, social, political, racial and economic areas, all of which were nurtured by an air of self-awareness, pride and the determination of the Africans as a whole. The artists, musicians and writers of this era were bound and determined to interpret and record the stories of their lives, their people, their history, their observations and experiences on their own terms and without apology to anyone. Langston Hughes expressed these feelings quite well. In an article titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” published in the “Nation” in 1926 Hughes wrote:
“We Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame . . . . We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
It was a time when Africans began to affirm their blackness; explore their uniqueness and individuality; take pride in their heritage and race; revel in their independence and demand their rights as human beings.
The Universal Negro Improvement Association, founded by Marcus Garvey, provided the Africans with never before explored options (even though short-lived) and reinforced their self-esteem. Garvey extolled everything black. He did not believe the African could ever receive true freedom or justice in America. Thus, he urged they return to the motherland . . . Africa. In addition, to a private army Garvey set up cooperatives and organized factories. He also proposed the development of the Black Star Line, a commercial steamship company whose primary objective would be to carry the lost children of Africa back home. However, before he could implement his plan, Garvey was arrested for mail fraud, thrown into federal prison and eventually deported to Jamaica (his place of birth). He died 1940 in London. However, the impact he had on the Harlem Renaissance must be acknowledged.
Even if the artists, writers and etc. were not in total agreement with Garvey’s philosophy he offered them something to think about and they did. Which is evidenced by the fact that much of their work reflected a glance back to their roots—to Africa.
The energy and creativity of the Harlem Renaissance spilled over into the dominant society. “It was a period when the [African] was in vogue.”
As interest (or should I say fascination) with the Harlem Renaissance grew among whites, the African artists gained easier access to publishers and other powerful devotees of the arts. Some found patrons who provided them with financial support. While this support, in most instances, was meager it did enable the recipients to live in relative comfort while pursuing their craft. Occasionally, the sponsors felt their financial support afforded them the right to impose their opinions on the artist. Such a mistaken assumption usually brought about a swift parting of the ways.
One of the Harlem Renaissance writers to be the beneficiary of a patron was Langston Hughes. His patroness (who identified herself as “godmother” when she wrote
and Hughes refused to name) was generous. She lavished him with fine food; expensive paper; and a chauffeur driven limousine as well as monetary assistance. However, Hughes abruptly ended the arrangement when it became apparent that she expected him to write according to her guidelines.
Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, Hughes first came to Harlem in 1926 in route to Lincoln University. But he belonged to Harlem long before that. In 1921 his poem “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers” was published in the Crisis magazine. Hughes would travel to Harlem on weekends while he was attending Lincoln University. Once he matriculated in 1929 he took up residence in Harlem where he remained for nearly 40 years. Hughes was one of the pivotal components among the talented gentry which comprised the Harlem Renaissance. His first book (a collection of poetry) entitled “The Weary Blues” was published in 1926. An extraordinary and prolific writer, Hughes wrote in every conceivable genre.
The list of his compositions from 1929 until his death in 1967 was remarkable in its quantity and quality as well as variety. A comprehensive list of his work may be found in “A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967” by D.C. Dickinson published by Archon Books (Hamden, CT.) in 1967. Most often noted for his prowess as a poet, his plays were his most important and favorite endeavors.
B. Reading Assignment
“Don’t You Want To Be Free?” by Langston Hughes
Among the lesser known plays by Langston Hughes is “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” Written in 1938, this history play has manifold significance. Subtitled “Don’t You Want To Be Free? From Slavery Through The Blues to Now—And Then Some! With Singing, Music and Dancing,” the play was written for the Harlem Suitcase Theater which he founded the same year. “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” is an agitprop play styled after the plays he saw during a 15 month stay in Russia from 1932 to 1933. “The theater that fascinated me most of all was Oklopkov’s Drasni Presnia, the most advanced in production styles of any playhouse I have ever seen. Arena staging was the least novel of its innovations . . . From the young Oklopkov and the older Meyerhold . . . . I acquired a number of interesting ways of staging plays, some of which I later utilized in my own Negro history play, “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” done in Harlem without a stage, curtains, or sets.”
According to Hughes, “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” was performed 135 times in 1937-38, and held the record for a Harlem run of any play.”
. Like the majority of his scripts the primary impetus of “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” was that of “affirmation rather than reaction—a desire to give voice to the ordinary [Africans].”
The play requires no set and few props. The foundation of the play is built around Hughes poetry, the bulk of which was gathered from two previous published collections “The Weary Blues” (1926); and “Fine Clothes to the Jew” (1927). In this particular work he “recreates the traditional relationship between the . . . . storytellers [i.e. griot] and their listeners”
a prerequisite of indigenous African theater. “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” enabled Hughes to articulate the aggregate voice of the African. Likewise, he succeeded in translating the African reality onto the stage. “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” turned out to be the archetype of many of the plays Hughes would write over the next fifteen years. A classic example of a work which takes on a life of its own, “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” was revised on a number of occasions between 1938 and 1963. The unique purpose for the revisions was to record developments in African history as they transpired over the years. For this reason “Don’t You Want To Be Free?” is an exceptionally fine example of the playwright as a griot. Thus, my reason for opting to use this particular work by an outstanding contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, despite the fact that the play was written a few years later. The content of the play can best be described by the opening speech given by a Young Man:
Listen folks! We’re going to put on a show . . . Now, I’ll tell you what this show is about. It’s about me, except that it’s not just about me now standing here talking to you. It’s about me yesterday and about me tomorrow. I’m colored, I guess you can see that. Well this show is a about what it means to be colored in America.”
The hour long play, while about being an African in America, additionally touches upon the connections to Africa prior to the commencement of slavery. The concept of ‘everyman’ permeates the play even with regard to the characters who are identified as: A Young Man; A Boy; A Girl; A Woman; A man etc. The only version that I was able to locate in published form was the original 1938 version (see bibliography). While this remains a powerful version, some critics tend to feel it is weaker than the renditions which followed “because he stopped expressing his political and social beliefs in a overtly Marxist fashion.”
The revisions made in 1944 speaks to the restriction of Africans from the factories; segregated units in the armed forces and the manner in which such practices hindered the war effort. In 1946, the conclusion of the play was revised. In lieu of the Africans participation in the war effort, Hughes wrote a plea that equal rights be granted to all. The 1952 version depicted the Harlem riots, and contains a conversation pertaining to the number of Africans who died fighting for the U.S. overseas and in the riots at home. This exchange takes place, oddly enough, between The Young Man (a black character) and a Dixicrat. The alliance between African and white workers which Hughes presented in earlier versions is deleted at this time. Instead a focus is placed on the repressive political climate. Hughes also takes a stand for integration with this particular revision.
The final revision was made in 1963 in “conjunction with the Centennial of the Emancipation.”
One minor change seems to have been made to the script at this time. When an audience member queries of The Young Man what to do, the character suggests the NAACP or CORE. Having located and secured a copy of the original 1963 manuscript from the Bienecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, I have opted to allocate this version to my students as a reading assignment. The decision to use this version was made because I felt my students could identify with references to Malcolm and Martin, etc., and also because it includes such additions as: production notes; casting notes; music cues; costumes notes; sound and light effects as well as sheet music which is not available in the published version of 1938. A copy of the 1963 version will be available at the Yale New Haven Teacher Institute office for interested teachers.
1. Review previous lessons. Make sure students are comfortable with them. Then ask them to complete the following tasks:
A. Instruct students to think of a problem, issue, situation, misunderstanding or conflict which could be the basis of a plot for play. Tell them to write their idea down on a piece of paper (keeping in mind that the conflict does not have to be negative). To assist with that particular concept give them examples such as: which date to take to the prom? Should you go to your football award dinner or to your Grandmothers birthday celebration? Your are informed that you will soon have a new baby brother or sister? You have just invented a devise that will render non-existent every military devise in the world, do you use it immediately or wait and see if the world can police itself. State the plot (conflict/problem) in one sentence.
B. Who are the characters who will struggle to fix or solve the conflict/problem? Describe the physical attributes and personality of each in one paragraph.
C. Write a scene in which the characters discover there is a conflict/problem.
D. Why do they want to resolve the problem/conflict? How are your characters effected by this conflict/problem?
E. What means do they use to resolve the problem/conflict?
F. Write a scene in which the problem has at long last been resolved.
2. Final product a one act play will be completed in the last two weeks of the semester.