For some people, the biggest holiday of the year has already past. I’ve seen abandoned Christmas trees and overstuffed garbage bins, full of wrapping paper and boxes for electronics, on the curb all around my neighborhood.
But some people are in the middle of their celebrations, and others are just beginning. Today is the sixth day of Kwanzaa, the day which celebrates the principle of Kuumba, or creativity; and also the day when children in the Latin@ world (among other places) write letters to the Three Kings in hopes that presents will be delivered on Día de los Reyes Magos, January 6th. In honor of both of these non-Christmas traditions, I thought I would give a shortened holiday blog to Langston Hughes’s “Carol of the Brown King,” first published in Crisis in December 1958.
Hughes first published his poetry in Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP, in 1921 when “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in the June issue. Hughes continued to write for the magazine throughout his career, and the December 1958 issue included “Carol of the Brown King” and two other poems, “On a Christmas Night” and “On a Pallet of Straw.” These poems would later become part of both the Christmas cantata, Ballad of the Brown King (1960), and the musical Hughes created with African-American composer Margaret Bonds, Black Nativity (1961). Although some see Hughes’s focus on Biblical themes as a rejection of radicalism, Daniel Wong-gu Kim, in his article “‘We Too Rise With You: Recovering Langston Hughes’s African (Re)Turn” (African American Review 41.3: 419-441) suggests that this time period was just as radical as Hughes’s Harlem Renaissance or Communist phases. Kim points out that during the 1950s, Hughes was particularly interested in the decolonization of the world, and specifically the African world. In 1955, Hughes wrote to Arna Bontemps that he was, “dreaming of Nigeria in my sleep” (qtd. in Kim, 421).
Hughes was involved in several projects throughout the 1950s to recover Africans’ place in both world and American history. The Ballad of the Brown King, which includes a longer version of the “Carol,” mentions several places in Africa and the Middle East as origin spaces for the “brown” king. In this way, Hughes makes specific the place that people of African origin have in global history and traditions. But Hughes also dedicated the work to Martin Luther King, Jr., suggesting that the role that people of African descent have in world history was not only in the past. The Ballad of the Brown King connects ancient and modern history, and gives voice to “brown” people all over the world.
Knowing the history of Hughes’s poem puts into perspective the publication of the work for children. One of the most recent of the children’s versions of Hughes’s work, The Carol of the Brown King (New York: Atheneum, 1998), with its wonderful illustrations by Ashley Bryan, only includes the shorter version of Hughes’s poem—without the direct reference to Africa. However, Bryan’s book is definitely in the spirit of Hughes’s vision of recovering the place of brown people in global history and traditions. In addition to five poems written by Hughes, Bryan also includes one that Hughes translated from Spanish. The inclusion of this poem, from an anonymous Puerto Rican writer, embraces the unity that Hughes himself advocated. The politics of Bryan’s version may not be as pronounced as in Hughes’s Ballad of the Brown King, but it is certainly a good place to start, whether you want to celebrate the principle of Kuumba or wish someone Feliz día de Reyes!