“Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly.” The voice of reader Angela Romans reciting the well-known opening lines of “Dreams” by the celebrated American poet Langston Hughes blended with the soulful snaps of audience members to fill the Providence Career & Technical Academy auditorium.
The 24th Annual Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading on Feb. 3 brought together a myriad of Rhode Island community members to commemorate the legacy of Hughes and to hold fast to the dreams that his social activism advanced. In addition to an emotional rendition of Hughes’ poem “Dreams,” readers also performed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Freedom,” “Dinner Guest: Me” and many other famous Hughes poems.
The group of 53 participating poetry readers, who each performed a poem by Hughes, consisted of artists, performers, school teachers, youths, academics and other Hughes enthusiasts. Some improvised with the band on stage to combine rhythm and melody with their readings.
“We are now going from babies to grandmothers,” said Kai Cameron, the program co-coordinator, when talking about the growing intergenerational participation in the event.
This year’s themes were “Time Is On Our Side,” “Love Is…” and “Let America Be America.” “I just really thought that we should use the event as a way for the community to have a platform to speak about how they’re feeling, and so that was when we introduced themes” three years ago, said April Brown, the other co-coordinator of the reading.
While some moved the audience through the tones of their voices, others incorporated dance and vocals to enhance the viewers’ experience. Taylor Polites, an audience member and recent winner of the Public Humanities Scholar Award given by The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, described the show as seeing “poetry alive.” Polites added, “It was really fabulous to really see both the energy and creativity people put into their performance.”
The addition of youths from the Refugee Dream Center was a new element to this year’s poetry reading . During the transition between the themes “Love Is…” and “Let America Be America,” a couple of refugee youths read Hughes’ poems in their mother tongues. “This is the poetry community reading. That means that if the mayor, the governor or the council person is part of the community, so is the immigrant, the refugee,” Brown said.
“The process of coming together is about building and knowing that you’re in a community and seeing the … diversity in all of these different voices,” said Elizabeth Francis, executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and one of the readers for the event.
Jean Patiky, an audience member and board member of the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities, described Hughes’ work as timeless. The purpose of the event was to encourage every member in the community to foster the enduring ideals that Hughes pioneered. “I’ve always said to my students when I had a class that you need to know who Langston Hughes is, like (you know who) … Shakespeare is,” Brown said. “He needs to live in your psychology; he needs to live in your emotion. When people talk about ‘to be or not to be,’ as they do a phrase, you need to understand ‘hold fast to dreams.’”