Black History Month Observance: A Collaboration Between Myself & A Stranger

Yesterday I opted to enjoy a “Fishy” salad (yes, it really is called a “Fishy” salad on the menu) at Z & H Market Cafe while catching-up on my reading. I felt woefully behind on my reading of The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson—one of the books I chose to read especially for Black History Month this year. In 1933 Woodson published this book on his own press—The Associated Publishers.

The "Father" of Black History, Carter G. Woodson
The “Father” of Black History, Carter G. Woodson

But prior to that, Carter G. Woodson had introduced Negro History Week in 1926 because he wanted to counter the popular assumption that black people had no history. He recognized that the Eurocentric worldview had people believing that white people were responsible for all that was good and right in the world; that the world’s oldest and greatest civilizations were white ones; that only white people invented things; that God, Adam, Moses, Jacob, John the Baptist and Jesus were all white! I was in elementary school school when that single week in February transitioned from Negro to Afro-American and Black History Week. For many of us kids attending public school in Detroit in those days, it was the most exciting week of the whole school year because we got a five-day immersion in black history and culture that barely got a mention in our pitiful textbooks. In 1976 the observance was expanded into Black History Month. By then Carter G.Woodson had been dead for 26 years.

In The Mis-Education of the Negro (which I am only 114 pages into, by the way), Woodson wrestled with the question of whether “educated” Negroes “are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing by perpetuating the regime of the oppressor.” (from the preface)

Digging a fork into my plate, I began to read Chapter XI: “The Need for Service Rather Than Leadership.” My salad was a fresh mix of spinach, smoked salmon, and goat cheese, topped with crispy croutons and lemony dressing. Across the way I noticed a young man who was reading a copy of Langston Hughes’ The Weary Blues. He and I were the only patrons who weren’t either engaged in conversation or interfacing with an electronic device.

I don’t know about you, but I often like to people-watch and imagine back-stories for people based on very few observable details. Aware that I was munching my salad in the University of Chicago district, I decided that this particular fellow was enrolled in a course for which reading The Weary Blues was mandatory. Still, my mind was itchy about it because lately I’ve been pondering these various days and months we observe like Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, Presidents Day, Valentines Day, Women’s History Month, St. Patrick’s Day, Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, etc. There are so many days in which we are meant to be acknowledging, memorializing, honoring, and raising consciousness….but, WHO is actually participating in these observances* and celebrations? And How are we/they doing it?

Eventually, I got nervy and walked over to the young man’s table to introduce myself and invade his space with my awkward questions.
“Hi, I’m Leslie. I don’t want to interrupt your lunch too much but I noticed you reading The Weary Blues. I have a blog and I recently posted about “reading diversely,”
and….well…I was wondering: are you reading The Weary Blues for Black History Month, or are you reading it for a class?”

Turns out I was wrong on both counts.
“No,” he replied. “I like Langston Hughes, and I love jazz.”

“Would you mind if I took a photo of you holding the book? I can just take a picture of the book in your hands, if you like.”

“Oh I don’t mind.” He gave me permission to photograph his face as well. After viewing the first photo, he decided that being photographed with his hat on would be more representative of the whole vibe of his style of dress and taste in music and poetry.

Doyoung Lim, a third year International Studies major at the University of Chicago,reading The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes
Doyoung Lim, a third year International Studies major at the University of Chicago,reading The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes

When his panini sandwich was delivered I was learning that his name is Doyoung Lim. “I’m not from here. I’m from Korea.” Doyoung explained. “But I spent a year in the U. S. as an exchange student when I was in high school. That’s when I first read Langston Hughes.”

When I asked him if he played an instrument, Doyoung told me that he first played jazz saxophone, but now plays guitar. He is a fan of the music of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, and the swing of hardbop in general. He told me that he appreciates the artistic inventiveness and social activism of African Americans found in this music, as well as that which flourished during the Harlem Renaissance era.

**

Click here to check out a performance of Langston Hughes reciting the poem “The Weary Blues.” There is some irony in it since one of the lines from the poem is “I heard a Negro play” but no Negroes are playing on this set shown in footage from 1958!

*(The Anti-Defamation League has created a “Calendar of Observances” for 2015 “To enhance mutual understanding and respect among various religious, ethnic, and cultural groups.” This list doesn’t include observances like “Sweetest Day,” “National Poetry Month,” or “Bosses Day).

Sorry there’s no photo of the salad!

Related posts: “It’s Getting Hot In Here: What’s All This Talk About Diversity?”

Special thanks to Doyoung Lim.

14 Comments

  1. You have such chutzpah and curiosity – great qualities in a writer.

    On the exporting of jazz around the world, some years ago my family were in Shanghai walking down a major shopping street when we heard live music being played. It was crowded and we couldn’t see the band but we followed the music because we recognized the song. It was a traditional Xinjiang tune (which we knew because my kids and I had taken Chinese dance classes – a long story for another time) but it was being played in a jazzy style. We finally got close enough to see the musicians who were dressed in bright yellow western/cowboy shirts, yellow cowboy hats and playing sax, guitar, and drums. They were ethnic Uyghers. It was an incredible cross cultural moment.

    1. Susanne, that scenario in Shanghai speaks of so many things! I want more stories of how different cultures find resonance and nourishment in each other, promoting understanding, appreciation, and inspiring new cultural expressions….I also feel as if I recently read something else about the Uyghers (it isn’t a name I read very day!) I guess I’ll have to track that down. I’ll stay tuned for your story about your children’s Chinese dance classes😁.

  2. This was a wonderful post, Leslie! Reminds me of the Alice Walker fan I met on the subway in China. It’s amazing how literature can connect people from different worlds:)

  3. Thanks Leslie for this wonderful post!
    I am neither Black nor American, but I firmly believe that Jazz is the single most valuable cultural contribution America has made for the world. Now it’s so universal that we don’t recognize it, but once people lived and died for this music. I loved the poetry of Langston Hughes because it takes us back to the 1930s when Jazz and its practitioners were still heavily discriminated and persecuted, and it pains me to ask myself the question “How much better off would Hughes be, in today’s Harlems and inner cities?” I feel that his dreams and failures are still very relevant today… so I’m glad that his poems got its 2015 makeover, “Weary Blues,” with a great cover and introduction!

    1. Hi Doyoung – I’m so glad to be able to add your comments to the post! Now I can’t help but wonder what Langston Hughes and the inventors of blues and jazz would make of how their contributions have allowed us to connect and appreciate, as well as look at history, and consider human failings and dreams?

    1. Margaret, I’m glad you enjoyed this story. So….what are the questions and thrills we get from noticing what other readers are reading [when we espy our kindred reading in public places and spaces]?

      1. Hi, Leslie. This post hasn’t left my mind, so I enjoyed re-reading it today. Here are some of the questions and thrills I have been thinking of (a combination I love, by the way):
        Why are you reading that and not something older or newer?
        Did someone give you that book, or did you choose it yourself?

        (If I’m seeing reading going on in some thrilling place) Why are you reading here?
        What did you have to get away from to get here to read?

        I’ve read that, too. What’s YOUR favorite part?

        Thanks and cheers!

  4. What a precious moment of connection, Leslie. This is rich stuff we hold onto and use to build a more compassionate world–the drops of human interaction that create a river of change.

    1. Hi Julie –
      Thank you for your beautiful comments. (I would have posted and replied to this sooner but this was in my “spam” so I’m going to have to do some investigating). Peace & blessings.

  5. What a wonderful moment Leslie and bravo for being courageous and initiating a conversation, what an interesting and passionate young man you had the fortune to meet, I am glad he was able to dispel your assumptions and share his interest, a messenger sent to restore our faith in humanity, and to show us that there are many, many more like him out there, inspired by great African and African American artists.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: