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As a Literature and Composition teacher at Sisseton-Wahpeton College in South Dakota, I was asked last Monday by Steven, one of our more outspoken students, a question that allowed me to reflect on Vincent Harding’s essay ‘Is America Possible.’
“Are you obsessed with racism?” Steven asked, as we got ready to listen to a piece of the podcast of Vincent Harding’s radio interview on ‘Being.’
“No,” I said. “I am not obsessed with racism, with ugliness. I am obsessed with beauty, with overcoming ugliness, overcoming racism.” I went on to cite the story Harding had told about singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’ and how its teen singer was jailed just for singing. I wanted to say something about context and how a powerful understanding of the right words at the right moment is almost pure beauty – a beauty that can outshine any ugliness.
But I was unable to explain satisfactorily just why it really is that I have taught Langston Hughes. Sometimes I still feel awkward talking about the subjects that Hughes touches on, even after teaching them three Fall semesters in a row. And sometimes the awkwardness is palpable, thick almost, within the classroom.
I agree with Mr. Harding that many of us – like me quite often – don’t know how to talk about these things. We need to develop our abilities to discourse and create meaningful dialogue.
At such a juncture, Langston Hughes speaks in a beautiful manner. He does so because his poems seem infused with magic – and dreams – and the power of the fact that every life is unique:
Mexican Market Woman
This ancient hag
Who sits upon the ground
Selling her scanty wares
Day in, day round,
Has known high wind-swept mountains,
And the sun has made
Her skin so brown.

Accompanying a nearly inarticulate insistence on Hughes is a realization. “This ancient hag” of the poem is only ugly, only mundanely “Selling her scanty wares / Day in, day round” at a cursory glance. Both poet and reader soon see she “has known high wind-swept mountains,” and she has known beauty that erases her ugliness: “The sun has made / her skin so brown.”

Beauty like this outshines ugliness. Vision like this is not satisfied with half-truths. And vision like this probes. Vision like this asks questions.

That is why – awkwardness risked – I believe it is important to continue to dialogue with students like Steven, and many, many students like him, who are poised to envision what a one-sided conversation never can. “Are you obsessed with racism” doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. Indeed, in every conversation – at least in the America in which we live, the America still possible and forming multiculturally – we may need to start with the awkward question, the question that probes ugliness looking for truth and articulation, and beauty. This is what Vincent Harding and Langston Hughes have gifted the world with. Maybe in our still possible America, a place just coming together, if we can keep questioning and answering in the awkwardness, it’ll all be good.