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Langston Hughes in Paradise

In the later part of his life, the poet Langston Hughes made several trips to Africa, presenting and leading writing workshops all the way from Nigeria to Uganda. Some say he emerged as an official celebrity in Africa when, in Senegal, he delivered a pivotal speech entitled “Black Writers in a Troubled World,” declaring that a Pan-African, anti-colonial stance could best be articulated through the function of an artist.

Langston Hughes travelled all over Africa but he never made it to Zanzibar, except posthumously, when his presence appeared palpably in a writing workshop I was leading with Zanzibari teenagers at the U.S. Embassy library located at the “American Corner” annex of the State University of Zanzibar.

A word on American Corner: It’s an unfortunate, misleading name. We’re a weird little broke-down corner, to be honest. Upon entering the rusted white gates, you come upon a space that’s part parking-lot, part wild garden, part mud-pits, part tiny classrooms with single windows and chalkboard, all built in an L-shaped structure six years ago to accommodate foreign students who come to study Kiswahili. The name connotes that no one except Americans are allowed to step foot here. A few German students once joked that they thought they might need a visa just to enter this part of campus.

Though Hughes might have cringed at all the power connotations of such a place, I think he would have been intrigued by a visit to the island of Zanzibar. He’d been a champion for island autonomy rights in the Caribbean, even writing a libretto for an opera called “Troubled Island” back in 1939, which explored the civil & spiritual rights of Haitians and their struggle for independence from every kind of domination.  And for a greater majority of the latter part of his life, he fought openly and vocally for the full liberation of Africa from colonial chains, making strong links between the crisis in Black America and the African struggle for freedom.

It’s Hughes’ defining question about the role of literature – of Black literature – in social transformation that also peaks my interest as a writer and educator.

And so, in honour of April’s Poetry Month in America, I suggested leading a poetry workshop inspired by a few of Langston Hughes’ poems. The workshop would be held at the U.S. Embassy library on April 15, 2011.  We invited form three students from Ben Bella school next door to join us for a poetry writing workshop. Eighteen students arrived that day with their teacher, Ms. Aziza, and sat quietly in uniform, waiting to begin.

I’d led many poetry workshops with young people in the States. For a time, I lived and breathed this work. But it’d been a year since I’d taught a workshop since moving to Zanzibar, and I’d certainly never taught a poetry workshop in full-on Swahili. Although my students study the English language, and need to know it to pass their national exams, there was definitely some confusion when I spoke in English only, so I launched into what I’m sure was a kind of Swahili riddled with hilarious mistakes.

My students were gracious and forgiving, though, and we entered together into that incredibly generous, open-ended poetry making space for the duration of two hours.

We opened with a warm-up, a classic writing exercise that starts with the words “I come from…” and follows with a catalogue of senses about a place, culture, time,  people or place. I learned this exercise from one of my first writing professors in college and I swear by this exercise as one of the surest ways to initiate poetic thinking.

Students responded with lines like:

Je, tunatoka wapi?

Sisi tunatoka watu weusi.

Wapi? Tanzania.

Sisi tunatoka bahari ya buluu.

Wapi? Zanzibar.

Sisi tunatoka miti ya kijani.

Wapi? Jozani.

Where are we from ?

We come from Black people.

Where? Tanzania.

We come from the ocean’s blue.

Where? Zanzibar.

We come from the green trees.

Where? Jozani.

Je, tunatoka wapi?

Sisi tunatoka katika asali yenye ladha tamu.

Sisi tunatoka katika shubiri yenye ladha chungu.

Sisi sote tunatoka ndimu yenye ladha kali.

Where are we from?

We come from the sweet taste of honey.

We come from the bitter taste of aloe.

We all come from the fierce taste of lime.

We played around with how to present these lines in collaborative groups and the room was buzzing with hushed voices as they discussed together how to best arrange the lines in unison or call-and-response.  The class as a whole presented the entire poem and then cheered for each other, giving one another standing ovations.











With the clock ticking, I explained that April was Poetry Month in America and that poets and writers were celebrating the power of the written and spoken word. We were going to take some time to read a few poems by the famous poet Langston Hughes. No one had heard of his name or what he represented in the great spectrum of American poetry. The pressure was on to best explain his enormous contribution to the poetry world, and to the broader world of arts and culture. I knew I had to just let the poems speak for themselves.

We started with Hughes’ famous poem, Mother to Son. I’d planned on reading two other poems that day – Dreams and I Look at the World – but the discussion and reading of Mother to Son was more than enough to keep us going for the next hour and a half. After passing out the text, students sat quietly and soaked it in, underlining words or passages that were either confusing or compelling.

Mother to Son


Well, son, I’ll tell you:

Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—


But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners,

And sometimes goin’ in the dark

Where there ain’t been no light.

So boy, don’t you turn back.

Don’t you set down on the steps

’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.

Don’t you fall now—

For I’se still goin’, honey,

I’se still climbin’,

And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.

Before discussing the bigger ideas, everyone went around and read just the lines they’d highlighted during the silent reading.  I like doing this just to get a feel for where readers are connecting or not with a certain text. It’s also a really helpful process for readers reading in a second language. Students uttered words like “crystal” and “tack,” “boards torn” and “I’se.” We clarified meanings, contexts, dialects.  We defined words and tried to see them. We sounded out new meanings, just to hear the pitch and tone.

And then we got into the heart of the matter. This relationship between mother and son – her message, his circumstances, the moment captured. I admit, I’d always approached and read this poem at face-value, a literal mother talking to her literal son, the metaphor being that life itself is like a set of stairs we climb and climb and climb. But that day, in the company of Zanzibari teenagers, with their insights, questions, and suggestions, I realized that  this poem had a nationalist message that had previous gotten lost on me.

Could the mother be the nation talking to her son – as in, all her sons & daughters?

That’s how most of the students interpreted the poem. While some saw and then looked for the specificity of a single relationship within the poem, others pointed out how the mother is like a country telling its people never to give up its struggle for national development. Perhaps even deriding her citizens for at times being lazy, not trying hard enough, or setting down on the steps because they find it’s kinder hard.

I was humbled by these insights, had never looked at or taught the poem from this perspective. If you look at the thrust & soul of Hughes’ work, his relationship to Africa, his wiry optimism for a better, different future, reading this poem as a national or political message all of a sudden seems obvious. And I stood corrected by – or rather, broadened by my students’ interpretation & reading between the lines.

It’s not unlikely that the specificity of Zanzibar’s national & political struggle informed their reading of this work. Zanzibar is a semi-autonomous state which is currently in the throes of a pretty nasty and complicated constitutional debate with its mainland partner, Tanzania. Zanzibar is, itself a “troubled paradise” in that it has constantly fought to rebuke colonial and post/neo-colonial powers, and has ceaselessly struggled internally to negotiate a very complex matrix of history, race, social class, and power. Globalization has also dealt Zanzibar a difficult hand, facing its citizens with resource shortages, threats of overpopulation, and vulture-style tourism trends.

By the age of fifteen, most form three students are painfully aware of the struggles here and during our workshop they grappled quite astutely with these issues. Although they were unaware of race & class struggles in the United States, and knew very little about the Civil Rights Movement and its stated goals and values for which Hughes was such a vocal, charismatic leader (only one knew the meaning and value of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life), they each could relate to the problematic notion of nationhood and the struggles, disappointments, and promises bound up within it.

I’m not sure what Langston Hughes would make of contemporary Africa, whether its governments, policies, and people have lived up to the visions set forth by what was once the burgeoning & hopeful visions of a Pan-African renaissance of freedom and unity. And I’m not sure I’m in the position, either, to comment on what was lost or gained in the long legacy of efforts made, and methods used, to shuck colonial powers and all the indifferences, abuses, and imbalances caused as a result of deeply inhumane ideologies.

I do know that Hughes’ passionate belief about the role of literature in social transformation is enduring, compelling, and after reading and writing with these students, undeniable:


Ali Talib Omar

Life is the long journey

You can’t get most of what you need.

You must work hard to get it.

It is the step, like the plant that grows.

Like the travel of a 1000 kilometres.

Life is found. Do not stay,

And you think it will come.


Life is confused, when you think.

Inspite of beginning hard,

You must work.

Try to work.

And do not care no matter what.

Life is found, don’t stay.


When you follow the way, do not tire.

You will win like a fire.

Life is hard like an iron.

And life is also sweet like honey.

Life is found, do not stay.

Life is a stone that does not move.


Life is interest, like a star.

And life is hate, like an issue.

Life is found, do not stay

Like a stone that does not move.



Fathiya Jombi


Well friend, let me tell you.

Life for me has not been easy.

It is like someone who is in the sea, swimming.

If he gets tired to swim, then he is going to sink.


Well friend, let me tell you.

Life for me has not been easy.

It is like someone who is walking on a thin way

And downward, there is fire.


Well friend, let me tell you.

Life for me has not been easy.

It is like someone who is walking through the Amazon forest

Where there are dangerous animals.


But above all,

I didn’t get tired to swim.

I didn’t let myself fall into the fire.

And I didn’t let myself be eaten by animals.



Ahmed Saum


Oh! My son.

It is too hard to win.

Life is like the wind.

It blows with no formula.

Sometimes it’s still silence

Without any expectation.

And sometimes it blows

Like a lion in the forest

vuuuuuuu! Vuuuuuuu!

Never try even to blink your eyes.

Suddenly, you do, you

Can get a splinter in your eyes.


To Youngsters

Abdillahi Khatib Omar


Don’t you lay your hands down

Fight for your own benefits in life.

They say life is a gamble, but it’s not fair

Cause you may either win or lose.

This is not the time to stay in the bed sheets.

Forget about sleep and fight.


Work for your own good.

And life for you will be like a chameleon.

It will always change when it touches place

Like a baby’s progression.

He starts, he sleeps, he creeps, then walks.

This is how the life is, guys.

It starts hard, and it becomes easy again.



Hassan Majaliwa

Elimu ni bahar                                   iinahitaji umahiri

Haina mwishoni                               isipokuwa mwanzoni

Kukupa ufahari                                 unapokua jangwani

Elimu sio mshumaa                         kuangaza huku ukiteketea.

Inahitaji ukamavu                            sio wingi na uvivu

Sio kama barafu                                                kuyayuka kwenye sakafu

Kuondoa upumbavu                      sio kwa mabavu

Elimu sio mshumaa                         kuangaza huku ukiteketea


Elimu ni kama nguvu                       Huonekana popote

Kwa hiari na maguvu                      Kaitafute popote

Kwani sio hatamu                            Katafute mwenyewe

Elimu sio mshumaa                         Kuangaza huku ukiteketea.


This last poem is a manifesto on education, and roughly translates:


Hassan Majaliwa

Education is the ocean. It requires competence.
It has no end or beginning.
Giving you prestige when you are in the desert.
Education is not a candle lit to keep from burning.

It requires the hornet, not riches and laziness.
It’s not like ice melting on the floor.
Removing ignorance is not a tyranny.
Education is not a candle lit to keep from burning.

Education is as strong a possibility anywhere.
Your own powers can be sought after everywhere.
Why not have the desires to find your own life?
Education is not a candle lit to keep from burning.

Despite all of the blatant injustices and inadequacies of public education here in Zanzibar, and really, almost everywhere in the world  (except, maybe, Finland), students around the world have so much to say and seek forums, listeners, advocates who will take them seriously. They want in — to know more, do more, say more, be more, to engage. To shape the way their country fails or supports their tentative futures.

The power of the poem never fails. Year after year, it’s that quiet girl in the back of the room who boldly stands up and speaks her truth. It’s that lanky hip-hopper goofing off with his trendy friends, who suddenly bolts up and reads the most lyrical manifesto on education and justice.

I wonder what Langston Hughes would have said to these students after hearing their poems?

What might he say today about America’s troubled relationship with the world? Or about Zanzibar as its own ‘troubled paradise’? What kind of powerful speech might he deliver, poem might he write, words of encouragement might he offer, had he met the future of Africa in Zanzibar?

And how, then, might the future of Zanzibar respond?












Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes. Reprinted with the permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.

Wong-gu Kim, Daniel. “We, Too, Rise with You”: Recovering Langston Hughes’s African (Re)Turn 1954-1960 in “AnAfrican Treasury”, the “Chicago Defender”, and “Black Orpheus.” African American Review, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Fall, 2007), pp. 419-441, Saint Louis University Press, 2007.











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  • Steve Seidel May 13, 2011, 5:02 am

    Amanda, As ever, and maybe even more, your work and your writing about your work (which is certainly also an integral part of your work) is fantastic and inspires me. you seem to be on a never-ending journey into the power of poetry, poets, and teachers to provide anyone, but especially young people, with another way to use words to explore the world and their own hearts and minds. Much more to say, but perhaps best to leave it at–write on! p.s. I miss you.