Afaa Michael Weaver, formerly known as Michael S. Weaver, was born in 1951 in Baltimore, Maryland, to working class parents. He attended public schools and graduated as a National Merit finalist at the age of sixteen. After two years at the University of Maryland, he entered the world of factory life alongside his father and uncles and remained a factory worker for fifteen years. These years were a literary apprenticeship during which he wrote and published poetry, short fiction, and freelance journalism. During that time he also started 7th Son Press and Blind Alleys, a literary journal.
His first book of poetry, Water Song, was published in 1985 as part of the Callaloo series. He received a NEA fellowship for poetry six months after signing the contract for the collections and left factory life to accept admission into Brown University’s graduate writing program on a full university fellowship, where he completed the M.A. with a focus on theater and playwriting. Concurrently, he completed his B.A. in Literature in English through Excelsior College.
His essay "Masters and Master Works: On Black Male Poetics" can be found on Poets.org.
Poets.org: How did you first come to study Hughes? What poems were you first drawn to? What poems do you keep coming back to? Which ones have shaped your own work?
Weaver: Hughes worked with his good friend Arna Bontemps to produce The Poetry of the Negro, a classic in the history of African-American Anthology-making. I purchased it when I was twenty years old. That along with reading his work as an undergraduate was my introduction. “Mother to Son” and “Daybreak in Alabama” have been favorites of mine, but I have learned the most from his blues poems and “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” When I created the “Bop” poetic form while teaching at Cave Canem (a retreat for African American poets), Hughes’s blues poems were my models and inspiration.
Poets.org: I'm interested in something you said in your essay on Black Male Poetics: "In choosing to be an architect, [Hughes] had to imagine his role." The idea of founding a cultural movement is daunting, and I imagine Hughes was more aware of that responsibility than most. How do you think Hughes imagined his role in shaping the poetic landscape of his time? What was present already for him to build upon or grapple with, and more importantly, how did he transform it?
Weaver: Hughes was following Paul Laurence Dunbar, a rather mighty predecessor, as I think Dunbar’s facility with metrics overshadowed Hughes, but Hughes had the persistence and the ability to seize fortuitous circumstance and make the best of things. He did not so much create a cultural movement as much as find his moorings in one into which he was born. He had a kind of native literary sense. So he was perched so as to be able to gradually sense the architectonics of his place in the tradition, which is perhaps best exemplified in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which has been a huge influence on my life and writing. In the naïve ambition common to most younger poets, I wanted to be the fulfillment of that prophesy.
Back to Dunbar and Hughes, Hughes had the benefit of “not” being weighed by such an albatross as “plantation poetry,” which was the handiwork of James Whitcomb Riley and other white writers. The southern speech such writers set in minstrel form sounded more like the Hoosier dialect of places like Indiana than Alabama or Mississippi, neither of which were like Virginia. Hughes was in that way free to set more of his own signature on the speech he used in his poetry, speech he observed among black people and then modified.
If not the fulfillment of a prophesy in any essay, Hughes was certainly in a continuum. Grieving over a lack of access for his standard speech poetry, Dunbar bemoaned it all in the phrase “a jingle in a broken tongue,” referring to plantation poetry, which was not even accurate representation of black speech patterns. Hughes took up the ways in which black folk “be” at the time and tried to operate out of a basic acceptance of our own humanity, hobbled as he was by his position as a middle class observer. Langston Hughes worked to transform his privilege into compassion.
Poets.org: How has Hughes has "aged" among poets? Like many of the greats, he has been a victim of anthologies—and nostalgia and the passage of time have maybe made him seem to be more gentle—and less political—than he actually was. What do you think his reputation among poets has become? What ideas or preconceptions do new readers bring to his work?
Weaver: We do, I think, see him in a grandfatherly way, which is to say he is probably the kind old man of popular memory. He and Dunbar created poetry that people recited for many years and some still do. Poets do jockey and position themselves to be anthologized only to realize it is a kind of setting in stone for just a few poems, maybe not even the ones that are your own favorites. C’est la vie. I think Hughes’s charm will carry him another hundred years as most of us readers are still in awe of the courage of the man to make a literary life in a time when blacks were being lynched regularly. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was still a smoldering memory when The Weary Blues was published, and the bombing of C Town in Oklahoma was yet to come. Still he moved along, listening to the blues of his own muse, through all the noise. It was the charming resistance of a man convinced he had something to give, to leave to us after his own ending.
Having said that, I don’t know what the generations born in the early eighties will make of Hughes, perhaps more of a grandfather. Theirs is the generation for whom the terms “text and textual” are being redefined in ways not seen since the invention of movable type. But the simplicity of his work may strike a deeper chord than we now realize. Mnemonics favors simplicity and repetition in phrasing. As great a poem as I think Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” is, it is not likely to stick as quickly and easily as Hughes’s “Mother to Son.”
Poets.org: Can you talk a little about the sound and structure in "Montage of a Dream Deferred," and how he makes use of the longer form? It was a bit of a revelation for me the first time I saw how "Harlem" fit into the longer sequence, and how much that changed the excerpt, to see it as part of a longer poem.
Weaver: “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is one of Hughes’s answers to the question of black modernity as per Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot’s ideas of the same period. As is his “Twelve Moods for Jazz,” a poem whose intricacy is made more difficult by Hughes’s reference to minute details in African American history and to people known only to the most meticulous historians…many of the references are personal. The late Professor George H. Bass knew that poem much more thoroughly than I do, and we never got a chance to sit and talk about it at length.
Hughes worked against being dismissed by modernists in both of these poems, although he had no hope of being admitted the way Robert Frost was finally admitted into the fold. The poem is an “experience” of Harlem as he knew it by living there, by taking the evening walks in the neighborhood, which he so much loved to do. “Montage of a Dream Deferred” came from this intimacy.
These poems are set in “montage” fashion, which is to say, they are to act in musical simultaneity, an ideal jazz performance, as per Eisenstein’s filmic ideas. The first poem is the opening solo, as I read it, and I identify seven sections within the poem and then the final poem also as a solo play. So I see the sections this way:
Opening: “Dream Boogie”
#1 “Parade” to “Not a Movie”
The neighborhood is presented to the reader in pageant fashion, with recurring questions as to the nature of reality in black culture. This is a panning of the people in Harlem.
#2 “Neon Signs” to “Motto”
This is an overview of the culture, of how culture manifests as people adapt modes for struggle.
#3 “Dead in There” to “Projection”
The camera’s eye goes to more detailed focus and a more morbid tone as the finite reality of death
appears in the poems. It’s the sense of despair against which the blues struggle.
#4 “Flatted Fifths” to “Tag”
The flatted fifth is the “blue note” of the blues pentatonic structure in this first poem, and the rest
of the section plays on the notes of the dynamic of summoning hope, the inner dynamics of hope.
#5 “Theme for English B” to “So Long”
The poet’s voice surveys the landscape of the community, affirming its “American” membership and
qualities while asserting its genuine difference.
#6 “Deferred” to “Dream Boogie:Variation”
This is a sustained play, as if on a tenor sax, of the pain of denial against hope and courage. The voices of the community speak out in single cases on the matter of being denied access.
#7 “Harlem” to “Letter”
The one shorter poem that is so much cited is the beginning of the endplay of “Montage of a Dream Deferred.”
There are several gems in “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” and the poem as a whole I can imagine as a set played by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, in a bygone time. It’s a remarkable achievement and an emblem of his work as a poet. Hughes was casual at times, perhaps too much so, in poems that don’t work as well, but when considered in the context of the huge amount of work he did in all genres, there is no question of the man’s genius. What might be seen as his casual way works well when he shines at capturing the quality of black speech. For many years Harlem was the capital of Africa and the Diaspora and a huge influence on many cultures, so the “gift” of this poem is its capturing of some of what that life was: a community that was, at one time, a mecca for African Americans and people of African descent from elsewhere in the Diaspora.
Poets.org: You also mention how “Mother to Son” may be one of Hughes’s lasting contributions because of its simplicity, or apparent simplicity, which makes me think how much harder it is to make a simple poem work as well as “Mother to Son” does. Why does it work? What does this poem show us about what Hughes imagined poetry could accomplish?
Weaver: If a “simple” poem lasts, it’s often due to its resonance, and “Mother to Son” is no exception. As a dramatic monologue, its success comes in its evocation of feeling in the dramatic tension created between the mother and the silent son to whom she addresses herself. The poem’s second most successful aspect is that the poem utilizes the staircase as a stage setting so that the poem becomes the stage and we can get the sense of what it is to climb.
“Mother to Son” takes us to the staircase and becomes a culture’s struggle. As an embodiment of its setting, the staircase, the monologue’s music is therefore about the willingness to live. Depression and suicidal thoughts were not strangers to Hughes, but what was a stranger was the absolute evidence of his mother’s love. This poem is what he would have wished for himself, a mother ahead of him in the struggle for life, one who cared enough to share her courage. The vernacular works well here in an evocation of folk wisdom, and although that 18th century romantic ideal does not always work for Hughes, it does here, and perhaps so because he chose love over anger in a poem that is about mothers and sons much more so than America and its racial woes. It is enduring because it is deeply human in that way.
It is a free verse dramatic monologue of twenty lines—most of them end-stopped—with a triadic thematic progression. The first third of the poem is the mother’s opening address to her son with a description of the staircase that gradually gets down to bareness as its essence. The second third of the poem is her description of her manner of getting up and along the staircase, which is itself triadic in its description of places of specific difficulty on the staircase, namely landings, corners, and dark places. The final third section is her plea to her son to not surrender to life’s challenges, as she has made it and is continuing to struggle along on a bare wooden staircase that is both poverty and denial, quite opposite the crystal staircase of a wealthy woman, a juxtaposition that is mindful of the pairing of Alberta K. Johnson in Hughes’s poem “Madam and Her Madam.”
Hughes’s imagination was driven by geometric symmetry, and so his metaphoric triumphs have a completeness that often give the subtle complexity to what appear to be “simply” simple poems.
The axis of the poem I find quite amazing in the turning in the lines “And sometimes goin in the dark/Where there ain’t been no light…” That makes the staircase at once a thing of carpenters and such as well as the intricacies of the human heart. It is a moment of genius, where Hughes’s own pain seeps through as a more ideal mother takes her son along the contours of surviving, of making a life, a caring and teaching love Hughes did not have in his own life.
Poets.org: For a reader who adores Langston Hughes, what writers would you recommend?
Weaver: Sterling Brown is often compared to Hughes, and some feel Brown’s best poems were better, although his oeuvre is much smaller. Gwendolyn Brooks is the eloquent master who carries Hughes’s concern for the folk into traditional forms. William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg are poets who shared Hughes’s affinity for everyday people and more of a quotidian quality in writing. I would compare T. S. Eliot’s cat poems to Hughes’s work and his “The Wasteland” to “Montage of a Dream Deferred” as well as “Twelve Moods for Jazz.”
Poets.org: Is there anything about Hughes that you wish people knew?
Weaver: The biographies by Arnold Rampersad and Faith Berry give you a great deal of detail, especially Rampersad’s, but as to the character of the man, I wish people knew more concretely that he was a man of courage and commitment, a man whose magnanimity and gracefulness took him above other, negative responses to making a life as a poet and writer during a difficult time in America. Langston Hughes was a visionary, a vatic poet.