Langston Hughes on What Life Was Really Like for a Poor Black Man in 1940s’ Harlem

Read the full article | NEW REPUBLIC

“f you are white and are reading this vignette, don’t take it for granted that all Harlem is a slum. It isn’t. There are big apartment houses up on the hill, Sugar Hill, and up by City Collegenice high-rent houses with elevators and doormen, where Canada Lee lives, and W.C. Handy, and the George S. Schuylers, and the Walter Whites, where colored families send their babies to private kindergartens and their youngsters to Ethical Culture School. And, please, white people, don’t think that all Negroes are the same. They aren’t.”

“Home. A dozen names on the bell. Roomers all over the house. No place for a kid to bring his friends. Only the pool halls open, the candy stores that bootleg liquor, the barbecue stands where you can listen to the juke-box even if you’re broke and don’t want to buy anything, and the long Harlem streets outside dimmed out because Hitler might send his planes overhead some dark night….”

After a white police officer shot and wounded a black soldier in Harlem in the summer of 1943, portions of the New York City neighborhood erupted in riots. Six people died and hundreds were arrested in a forty-eight-hour period. The events of those two days were of momentous influence to three of the leading African-American voices of the time: James Baldwin, who wrote about the riots in his Notes of a Native Son; Ralph Ellision, who used the events as inspiration for portions of Invisible Man; and Langston Hughes, who penned this essay for The New Republic.

To mark its 100th anniversary, The New Republic is republishing a collection of its most memorable articles. This week’s theme: Twentieth-Century American Life. This piece originally appeared at The New Republic on March 27, 1944.



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