Valerie Leon Brown said she had no nervousness at the podium as she skimmed over the works of legendary poet Langston Hughes.
For nearly 30 years, the professional speech therapist and Oak Park resident has been reading Hughes’ writings. Brown, however, viewed last Sunday’s open mic event at Afri-Ware in Oak Park as the best forum to express her appreciation for him.
“When I found out about this poetry reading honoring Hughes I knew I had to come and read,” she said.
Brown was a participant at a Langston Hughes poetry presentation hosted by Afri-Ware, at 266 Lake Street. She and others were invited out to recite their favorite Hughes works.
The event also kicked-off a month-long series of programs about the blues
Brown recited his poems “NAACP” and “Mother to Son”.
“His writing remains so timely,” she said. “When you look at poems like ‘Negro Mother’ and ‘Tired,’ he was speaking in a universal language about issues of race, democracy and social class. His works remain relevant today.”
Sunday Feb. 17, also served as the official kick-off to “The Blues: Roots of American Music.” This series of programs will feature concerts, panel discussions and films highlighting important figures in the evolution of blues music.
Afri-Ware and other venues in Oak Park will host the events from Feb. 17 to March 20. The Oak Park Library, Columbia College University, Unity Temple Restoration Foundation and the League of Women Voters of Oak Park and River Forest are the event’s sponsors.
Columbia College professor George Bailey is among the planners for the month-long blues series. He contacted Afri-Ware, which typically hosts its own peotry events, about about hosting the Hughes event.
“George had read a letter we had sent out to our mailing list last summer thanking them for their continued support of the store following our move from 948 Lake Street last fall,” said Nzingha Amma Nommo, Afri-ware’s owner.
“He was planning the blues event at the time and suggested we hold the Langston Hughes presentation here. The library contacted me, and I thought it was a wonderful idea.”
Nommo felt that examining Hughes contributions to the blues scene, particularly during the Harlem Renaissance, was vital in assessing the music’s contemporary sound.
“Hughes is the ideal poet when discussing blues,” she said. “His poetry was rhythmically, so in-step with the musical experimentation of the time. And his words, especially on ‘No Commercial Theater’, are prophetic in their relationship with the dissatisfaction of African-Americans then and now.”
Nommo served as emcee for Sunday’s event. She also recited Hughes’ “Red Clay Blues,” a poem he wrote with Richard Wright, focusing on the look of Africa.
“This poem was special to me because a few year’s ago I was able to visit Africa, and it was just as he described it in the poem. There is just acres of red clay streets, especially in Ghana,” Nommo said.
Alice Brown, an Oak Park resident who is currently taking jazz and piano classes at Triton College, read “Democracy” at the event.
She was motivated to attend the event due to her lifelong passion for the arts, which her studying of Hughes work helped cultivate. Brown recited his “Dream Deferred,” which includes a line that gave the stage play A Raisin in the Sun its title
“I’ve always been one to dabble in the creative arts like writing and poetry, and I have been a fan of Hughes all my life,” she said. “I was a teenager when he died, and I remember really getting emotional about it at the time.”
For information about “Blues: Roots of American Music” call 708/697-6915.