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May 22, 1967: Langston Hughes Dies

Langston Hughes died on this day in 1967 after four decades of profoundly influencing black culture and, indeed, American life generally. His breakthrough essay was published in The Nation in June 1926. Solicited by future editor Freda Kirchwey as a response to a piece the magazine had run a week earlier by the prominent black journalist George Schuyler, who argued that there neither was nor should there be a specifically black culture, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” was a sort of a mission statement of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes continued to write essays and poems for The Nation until the year he died.

Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. Let Paul Robeson singing Water Boy, and Rudolph Fisher writing about the streets of Harlem, and Jean Toomer holding the heart of Georgia in his hands, and Aaron Douglas drawing strange black fantasies cause the smug Negro middle class to turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books and papers to catch a glimmer of their own beauty. We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

May 22, 1967

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May 21, 1961: Famously Hospitable Southerners Greet Freedom Riders With Death Threats and Riots

On this day in 1961, the first Freedom Riders were mobbed and assaulted in Montgomery by local whites protesting the integrationist campaign and a speech by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In response, the Kennedy administration instituted martial law and brought in the National Guard. Robert Martinson was among the first Freedom Riders, and wrote an essay, “Prison Notes of a Freedom Rider,” for the Nation of January 6, 1962. Martinson later went on to become an influential sociologist whose lasting contribution to the field was a 1974 paper declaring that “nothing works” for rehabilitating convicted criminals. He committed suicide in 1980.

And yet even here [at the Mississippi State Penitentiary] the spirit of the movement prevailed. In these almost hopeless conditions the democratic forms continued. Solidarity was somehow recaputured through song, prayer and discussion. Even our nemesis—Deputy Sheriff Thysen—seemed a little surprised, even curious. He asked a young Negro why he was smiling and received no answer. He repeated the question in his deadly way: “Boy, what you got to smile about? You in jail, you know.” “Sheriff,” he answered, “you just wouldn’t understand. I’m smiling because I’m free.” And I was witness to the fact that, indeed, a new kind of freedom—tough, critical, unsentimental, knowing—is being forged in the jails and prisons of the South. Those who emerge from these jails will never be the same again. They will go on to fight other battles and train other Riders. Mississippi will learn that it has aided the process it set out to hinder: it has educated the ignorant and trained the native.

May 21, 1961

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May 17, 1954: Supreme Court Rules Segregation Unconstitutional in ‘Brown v. Board of Ed.’

The Nation greeted the Court’s decision with unalloyed jubilation. Carey McWilliams, who would become editor the following year, wrote an editorial titled “The Climax of an Era” (May 29, 1954), positing that Brown v. Board of Ed. represented an important counterpoint to the prevailing McCarthyite conservatism of the times. True to its mission of reporting the important news before it happens rather than after, The Nation had been watching the case for some time. The previous autumn, a young Bernard Crick, later a political theorist and biographer of George Orwell, had traveled through the South and reported his findings in The Nation. The Court’s expected decision in Brown, he predicted, “will touch the region in its most sensitive spot.” That would prove to be a vast understatement.

The decision was especially welcome at this time since it enabled us and our friends abroad for the first time in some years to be equally and simultaneously enthusiastic about an important announcement from Washington. The decision was a fine antidote to the blight of McCarthyism and kindred fevers….

The reception which has been accorded the court’s decision should be taken as a guide to policy. For it demonstrates once again the measure of unity and confidence and pride that can be aroused whenever unqualified expression is given to the individual and social values to be found in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Fortunately we continue to redeem, often after costly delays and protestations, the promises to which we can now add, by current conviction.

May 17, 1954

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A Victory Parade 150 Years in the Making

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May 5, 1950: Gwendolyn Brooks Becomes the First African-American Awarded a Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer was only the first of many awards Brooks would earn throughout her long career. In 1967 she published in The Nation a brief prose eulogy for Langston Hughes: “Mightily did he use the street. He found its multiple heart, its tastes, its smells, alarms, formulas, flowers, garbage and convulsions. He brought them all to his table-top. He crushed them to a writing-paste. The pen that was himself went in…” The dazzlingly named Rolfe Humphries, who wrote this review of Brooks’s second volume in 1949, the year before she won the Pulitzer, was a poet and educator who mentored Theodore Roethke. In 1939, he smuggled into Poetry magazine an acrostic poem in which the first letters of each line spelled out, “Nicholas Murray Butler is a horse’s ass,” referring to the president of Columbia University. He found himself briefly banned him from Poetry magazine.

Where the subject is the Negro people, or the Negro person, Miss Brooks has gone considerably beyond some of the quaint and for-tourists-only self-consciousness that at times made one a little uncomfortable in reading her first book. Her weakness lies in streaks, as it were, of awkwardness, naïveté, when she seems to be carried away by the big word or the spectacular rhyme; when her ear, of a sudden, goes all to pieces…. Her strength consists of boldness, invention, a daring to experiment, a naturalness that does not scorn literature but absorbs it, exploits it, and through this absorption and exploitation comes out with the remark made in an entirely original way, not offhand so much as forthright. Miss Brooks, by now, must realize that the greatest danger to her progress lies in the risk of her being taken up; she needs to be both very inquisitve about, and very remorseless to, her weaker side.

May 5, 1950

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The Nation: A Biography (PDF)

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The Nation: A Biography (ePub)

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April 22, 1970: Earth Day Is Celebrated For the First Time

Earth Day galvanized the nascent environmental movement and has since provided a focus for organizing energies. But twenty-five years ago longtime Nation contributor Kirkpatrick Sale wrote an essay on “The Trouble With Earth Day,” suggesting that designating a single day for acknowledgment of the environmental perils posed by modern industrial society was both insufficient to the challenges we face and possibly outright harmful. Even today, knowing so much more about how we have damaged not only “the environment”—an increasingly unhelpful euphemism—but the most basic processes of nature on Earth, Sale’s essay poses questions to which we are still struggling to come up with answers.

[Earth Day] is an operation—however well meaning, however many good people involved—that is, at its core, a shuck. For after telling us where it hurts, it gives us only the most simplistic sorts of remedies. Its first is personal “life-style” Band-Aids for hemorrhaging wounds and do-it-yourself surgery; its second is the nostrum of federal laws and regulations, providing the patient with more of the kind of cures that created the disease. And it never gets around to asking—much less proposing answers for—those fundamental questions this society must be forced to face: Who, really, is causing the degradation and destruction of the environment? How can they be stopped, and stopped short, not just “regulated” and “overseen” and reformed? Why has society allowed this to go on, to the point that all oxygen-dependent species, including humans, are imperiled, and why do we seem powerless to prevent it? What would it take to accomplish the serious, wrenching, full-scale readjustments that in fact are necessary to save the earth, including reduced standards of living, consumption and growth; severe population reduction; and a new, modest, regardful relationship with the earth and its species? Who is going to carry this literally vital message to the American people? And when? For the time, as every new crisis lets us know, is later than we think.

April 22, 1970

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April 21, 1838: John Muir Is Born

John Muir was probably the most influential and widely read naturalist—because the most mellifluous nature writer—the United States has yet produced. Though it came comparatively late to the cause of conservation, The Nation vigorously endorsed Muir’s unsuccessful campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley of California from being flooded to satiate San Francisco’s thirst. “Not only has Mr. Muir made our national parks his home for many years, and written books about them,” the magazine noted in 1909, “but it was largely through his efforts that some of these parks were set aside as playgrounds and holiday resorts of the American nation.” Conservationism and environmentalism, as it happens, is this month’s Nation Ideal; be sure to check out the interactive timeline we’ve devised which surveys the entirety of The Nation’s coverage of this theme since its founding in 1865. The following essay on Muir by literary editor Mark Van Doren appeared in the Nation of April 12, 1922.

John Muir died in 1914, or he might have been better known. Death on a different scale was about to occupy the energies of the race, and not much attention was paid to the passing of an old naturalist who had devoted his life to mountains, forests, and glaciers, and who never had liked killing…. So lofty and so vibrant was the world Muir made the dwelling-place, now of his body, now of his imagination, during the remainder of his many years…. It is a miracle of literature, this rapture maintained at so high a pitch over so long a time. He passed the prime portion of his life climbing these cliffs, exploring these valleys, measuring and mapping these glaciers, threading these forests, sleeping upon these peaks, pausing upon these precipices “transparent as glass” to the beauty around him, and zealous to enter that beauty in his journal.

April 21, 1838

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April 15, 1927: The Great Mississippi River Flood Inundates New Orleans and the Delta

The 1927 flood prompted the construction of massive levees and further spurred the northward migration of African-Americans. The following article for The Nation, “The Negro and the Flood” (June 22, 1927), makes for uncomfortable reading almost ten years after Hurricane Katrina, when the destruction wrought by the floodwaters similarly reflected a human disaster no less than a natural one. Its author, Walter White, was a writer and the leader of the NAACP from 1931 to 1955 (before, of course, starring in the break-out television series Breaking Bad).

Those in immediate charge of flood relief, whether wittingly or not, are, I believe, permitting the relief organizations to be used by plantation-owners further to enslave or at least to perpetuate peonage conditions in many parts of the flood area…Negroes in hundreds of cases were forced to work at the point of guns on the levees long after it was certain that the levees would break. Conscripted Negro labor did practically all of the hard and dangerous work in fighting the flood. Harrowing as many of these stories are, they are the almost inevitable products of a gigantic catastrophe and are part of the normal picture of the industrial and race situation in certain parts of the South. The greatest and most significant injustice is in the denial to Negroes of the right of free movement and of the privilege of selling their services to the highest bidder. That, if persisted in, would recreate and crystallize a new slavery almost as miserable as the old.

April 15, 1927

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