Today is the birthday of [James] Langston Hughes (1902-1967), born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents’ divorce, Hughes spent his childhood with a number of relatives, including his grandmother, who was one of the first women to graduate from Oberlin College. She taught him Bible stories, hymns, and the history of African-American heroes, among them Hughes family members. We can here speculate that this probably had a long-term effect on a thoughtful child with an ear for language.
During his rather isolated early childhood, Hughes began writing his own stories and poems. Despite his father’s disapproval (his father wanted him to become an engineer), he persisted, developing a sensitive, passionate voice that was influenced by jazz, blues, and the speech and concerns of ordinary black Americans. Frustration led him to drop out of Columbia University and try something else. Before he achieved recognition for his writing, Hughes worked as a merchant seaman, busboy, cook, dishwasher, and Paris doorman(!). Wanderlust and perhaps a hopeful temperament made a traveler of him. Hughes said, “Most people are essentially good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”
In his life he spent time in Mexico, West Africa, Europe, and the Soviet Union, as well as all over the States, but of all places he loved Harlem best. His first (and prize-winning) book of poems was about Harlem life. He went on to write many books of poetry, novels, essays, short stories, song lyrics, and plays. In the 1930s his work was attacked by critics as disturbingly dark; by the 1960s it was attacked as insufficiently radical. This may be the inevitable fate of many a creative person who lives long enough to endure it.
Today is the birthday of Alexander Robey Shepherd (1835–1902). Do you know who that is? Well, if not, now you will. My daughter and I are finishing up a lesson block on Local History and Geography, which has ranged from visiting and mapping our little neighborhood creeks (to follow how they connect to the Potomac River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic) to learning about the prehistory and history of the bit of land upon which we now perch, grow strawberries, and walk the dog.
Among the colorful characters we have studied is the above-named Shepherd, nicknamed “Boss” Shepherd, who served on the Bureau of Public Works, and as governor, in the days when Washington, DC had governors. Shepherd was a powerful and controversial fellow who didn’t sit around waiting for something to be approved by some old committee or the U.S. Congress, and he took it upon himself to make huge improvements in the city’s infrastructure. He was also progressive for his day, promoting universal suffrage and school integration. Shepherd was eventually removed from office, and his statue was put in storage as an embarrassing reminder of the political corruption from which our fair city has henceforth been free… Anyway. Shepherd’s reputation has recently been rehabilitated and his statue is back in front of DC’s Wilson Building, where you can stand today and eat a cupcake in his honor.
Today is the birthday of Claes Oldenburg (born 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden), whose sculptures depicting soft versions of normally solid objects (like bathtubs and violins) and gigantic versions of small household objects (like lipstick and ice cream cones) have been critically successful as well as extremely popular and are installed in public spaces around the world. Some, like his giant clothespin and typewriter eraser, have also with the passage of time become mementos of a dimly remembered disappearing technology. His works elevate the pedestrian to the extraordinary and are lots of fun besides. Here’s wishing him a great big slice of birthday cake.
Today is the birthday of Robert Burns (1759-1796), national poet of Scotland, who wrote over 900 poems and songs and collected and made available hundreds of traditional Scottish songs as well. This is all the more astounding when you consider his impoverished background, spotty education, delayed launch into literary life, and, sadly, his premature death at age 37. All over the English-speaking world today, Burns’ birthday is celebrated with recitation of his poetry; the festive presentation, and even the consumption, of haggis; toasts, speeches and songs; and a concluding round of Auld Lang Syne.
Although Burns is probably best known for his beautiful and poignant love poems, generally written in honor of one of the numerous ladies Burns admired, my offering today is a seasonal verse appropriate for a Monday morning in January.
Move your buttocks, you lazy fool. It’s breakfast-time!
Stop talking nonsense, you unmannerly blockhead.
Today is the birthday of Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), scientific writer, lecturer, and author of the Thesaurus, a project that he did not even begin to pursue seriously until his 70s. That ought to encourage the rest of us slowpokes. Roget was a lifelong and compulsive list-maker, a practice that apparently comforted him and helped sustain him through the terrible depressions that plagued him and his extended family, although he suffered tragedy enough throughout his life to justify serious despair. I love my Thesaurus and was inspired by this birthday to get on the library waiting list (speaking of lists) for a recent biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists. Among Roget’s many other admirers is J.M. Barrie:
“The night nursery of the Darling family, which is the scene of our opening Act, is at the top of a rather depressed street in Bloomsbury. We have a right to place it where we will, and the reason Bloomsbury is chosen is that Mr. Roget once lived there. So did we in days when his Thesaurus was our only companion in London; and we whom he has helped to wend our way through life have always wanted to pay him a little compliment. The Darlings therefore lived in Bloomsbury.” —Introduction to Act I of Peter Pan
Natsukashii: A Japanese word used to express the feeling described above. It is not yet in the Thesaurus.
These are pages from a book created by my daughter for a second grade Saints, Heroes, and Heroines lesson block. Born in 1929, King would probably have thought it a fine birthday gift to see one of the fruits of his labors, an African-American in the White House. Happy birthday, Dr. King.
“The good neighbor looks beyond the external accidents and discerns those inner qualities that make all men human and, therefore, brothers.” —Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
You can listen to Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech.