II: Big Sea
Working in the steam of the wet wash laundry that winter, I caught a bad cold, stayed home from work a week—and found my job gone when I went back. So I went to work for a colored newspaper. But I only made eighty cents in two weeks, so I quit the newspaper game. Then an old school friend of my mother’s, Amanda Grey Hilyer, who once owned a drug store, spoke to Dr. Carter G. Woodson about me, and Dr. Woodson gave me a job in the offices of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History as his personal assistant.
My new job paid several dollars more a week than the wet wash laundry. It was what they call in Washington “a position.” But it was much harder work than the laundry.
I had to go to work early and start the furnace in the morning, dust, open the office, and see that the stenographers came in on time. Then I had to sort the mail, notify Dr. Woodson of callers, wrap and post all book orders, keep the office routine going, read proof, check address lists, help on the typing, fold and seal letters, run errands, lock up, clean the office in the evening—and then come back and bank the furnace every night at nine!
At that time Dr. Woodson was working on his compilation, Thirty Thousand Free Negro Heads of Families. My job was to put the thirty thousand in alphabetical order from Ab, Abner on down to Zu, Zucker, or whatever the last name might be—from the first letter of each name alphabetically through to the last letter of each name, in absolute order. They were typed on thirty thousand slips of paper. The job took weeks. Then checking the proofs took weeks more. It was like arranging a telephone book, and only myself to do it—along with my other work.
Although I realized what a fine contribution Dr. Woodson was making to the Negro people and to America, publishing his histories, his studies, and his Journal of Negro History, I personally did not like the work I had to do. Besides, it hurt my eyes. So when I got through the proofs, I decided I didn’t care to have “a position” any longer, I preferred a job, so I went to work at the Wardman Park Hotel as a bus boy, where meals were thrown in and it was less hard on the sight, although the pay was not quite the same and there was no dignity attached to bus boy work in the eyes of upper class Washingtonians, who kept insisting that a colored poet should be a credit to his race.
But I am glad I went to work at the Wardman Park Hotel, because there I met Vachel Lindsay. Diplomats and cabinet members in the dining room did not excite me much, but I was thrilled the day Vachel Lindsay came. I knew him, because I’d seen his picture in the papers that morning. He was to give a reading of his poems in the little theater of the hotel that night. I wanted very much to hear him read his poems, but I knew they did not admit colored people to the auditorium.
That afternoon I wrote out three of my poems, “Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” and “The Weary Blues,” on some pieces of paper and put them in the pocket of my white bus boy’s coat. In the evening when Mr. Lindsay came down to dinner, quickly I laid them beside his plate and went away, afraid to say anything to so famous a poet, except to tell him I liked his poems and that these were poems of mine. I looked back once and saw Mr. Lindsay reading the poems, as I picked up a tray of dirty dishes from a side table and started for the dumb-waiter.
The next morning on the way to work, as usual I bought a paper—and there I read that Vachel Lindsay had discovered a Negro bus boy poet! At the hotel the reporters were already waiting for me. They interviewed me. And they took my picture, holding up a tray of dirty dishes in the middle of the dining room. The picture, copyrighted by Underwood and Underwood, appeared in lots of newspapers throughout the country. It was my first publicity break.
Mr. Lindsay had gone, but he left a package for me at the desk, a set of Amy Lowell’s John Keats, with this note written on the fly leaves:
December 6, 1925
Wardman Park Hotel,
Washington, D. C.
My dear Langston Hughes:
The “New Poetry” movement has been going on in America since 1912. Two members of that army have died—Joyce Kilmer in the war, and Amy Lowell very recently. Already one hundred distinguished books of verse or criticism have been written, and hundreds of poems set going.
Eleven of the distinguished books are by Amy Lowell—and are listed in the front of this one. Please read the books and ignore the newspapers. I should say “Tendencies in Modern American Poetry” by Miss Lowell is a good book to start on. You may know all of this better than I do.
Miss Lowell has re-written the story of Keats from the standpoint of the “New Poetry.” I hope you care to go into the whole movement for study from Edwin Arlington Robinson to Alfred Kreymborg’s “Troubadour.”
Do not let any lionizers stampede you. Hide and write and study and think. I know what factions do. Beware of them. I know what flatterers do. Beware of them. I know what lionizers do. Beware of them.
Good wishes to you indeed,
(Signed) Nicholas Vachel Lindsay
This note was written in ink in great, flowing, generous handwriting, spread over six pages—all the pages there were before the book proper began. A few days later Mr. Lindsay and his wife came back to the hotel, passing through Washington on the way to another engagement, and I had a short, encouraging talk with him. He was a great, kind man. And he is one of the people I remember with pleasure and gratitude out of my bewildered days in Washington.