Langston Hughes and Martin Luther King, Jr.: Together in Nigeria

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Author: Jason Miller
Date: Spring 2018
From: South Atlantic Review(Vol. 83, Issue 1)
Publisher: South Atlantic Modern Language Association
Document Type: Essay
Length: 8,039 words

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On August 22, 2012, Stephen Tull discovered an audio reel in the attic of his father's home in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The reel contained an interview between Tull's father and Martin Luther King, Jr. recorded on Dec. 21, 1960. Tull's father had interviewed King for a book project that never reached publication. The recording was quickly authenticated, and its content drew the interest of King scholars, from Raymond Winbush to Clayborne Carson. (1) According to Winbush, the tape captures King discussing a recent trip to Africa. Carson suggests that this is the trip King took to Nigeria in November of 1960 (Johnson). Winbush and Carson were particularly interested in this recording. Because the archival record of King's travel to Nigeria in 1960 is very slim, none of King's biographers have addressed this trip. King's trip to Nigeria is an untold travel tale. One of this tale's most intriguing features is that Langston Hughes also made this same trip to Nigeria, and he traveled with Martin Luther King, Jr.

Langston Hughes's relationship with King has profound significance for understanding just how surprisingly connected the two men were. Though he was approximately twenty-seven years older, Hughes died less than a year before King's assassination. As such, the two men met, exchanged letters, and mutually inspired each other. Hughes wrote about King in several of his poems and in over forty of his Chicago Defender articles, and King used Hughes's poetry with remarkable depth and variety in his speeches and sermons from 1955-1968. In fact, King used seven different poems (one of which was an unpublished poem personally requested by King and received from Hughes). Most significantly, King's earliest encounters with the idea of dreams came directly from his engagements (and often riffs) on Hughes's poems such as "I Dream a World" and "Dream Deferred." After much speculation, we now know that King's famous dream has its origins in Hughes's poetry.

While it is easy to inadvertently elevate King's stature above Hughes's, this trip reveals that Nigerians, knowing his poetry well, held Hughes in far higher regard than King in 1960. In addition to being connected as influential men of the world, each held Africa as an important measure for freedom in the world. Like King, Hughes saw "himself and those Africans fighting for justice as united by a common political experience in the twentieth century, if not at least connected by a racial bond" (Green 160). The time Hughes and King spent together in Nigeria amplifies the relationship of these two men and broadens our understanding of the words they used both in print and on the stage. This trip reveals how Martin Luther King became the star performer of one of Langston Hughes's greatest scripts.

Hughes and King shared the same flight from London to Nigeria in November of 1960. As African American dignitaries, Hughes and King had accepted invitations to attend the inauguration ceremonies and celebration surrounding the change of power from British hands to the country's first indigenous Nigerian to...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A532075808