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Reading from The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart
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In this excerpt from her latest collection, The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart, Alice Walker recalls a literary gathering in the late 1960's when she and her husband, a young Jewish lawyer, encountered Langston Hughes

How were we to know Langston would die so shortly after we refused him a ride with us? I remember introducing you to him as if he were my father. I was so proud. He was so seemingly at home in any world. The huge Central Park West apartment we were in, for instance, with its windows overlooking the Natural History Museum. How young we were! Sometimes, when I think of our youth, the image that sums it up is the back of your neck, just after you'd "taken a haircut" and your brown shiny hair was shaved close to the back of your head and abruptly, bluntly terminated, leaving your neck extremely vulnerable and pale. For some reason, I was moved by this; it always made me think of you as someone who would, and did indeed, stick his neck out. Langston liked you from the start.

I was too shy to notice anyone or even to hazard a thought about the politics of the gathering. Writers and poets and agents and editors, I know now. Some famous, some not. But what was fame to me? It seemed too far away even to contemplate. It was winter; I was, as always, longing for a father. How odd life is: Now, one of my brothers is very ill. He tells me, when I visit him in the hospital, that the father I 'always wanted was the one he actually had. He remembers my father organizing in our community to build the first consolidated school for Blacks in the county, which was burned to the ground by Whites. Then starting again, humbly, asking a local White man--who might indeed have been one of those who torched the first school--to let the community rent an old falling down shed of his, until a second school could be built. He tells me my father traveled to other counties looking for teachers, because our county was so poor and Black people kept in such ignorance there were no teachers to be chosen among us. It was my father who found the woman who would become my first-grade teacher My brother's words are both fire and balm to my heart. Now, in my fifth decade, I know what it is to be deeply exhausted from the struggle to "uplift" the race. To see the tender faces of our children turned stupid with disappointment and the ravages of poverty and disgrace. To think of the labor of Sisyphus to get his boulder to the top of the hill as the only fit symbol for our struggle. I am thankful that, when I went North to college, one of my teachers introduced me to the work of Camus. Sisyphus, he said, transcends the humiliation of his endless task because he just keeps pushing the boulder up the hill, knowing it will fall down again, but pushing it anyway, and forever.

We had the little red bug then, and you were teaching me to drive it, at two or three o'clock in the morning, when there was less traffic on the streets of New York. I loved those early morning hours: Sometimes we would go swimming. We'd have the university's pool all to ourselves, in the middle of the night, and you taught me the breaststroke (so graceful!) and the sidestroke, and sometimes after swimming we'd go out in your car

Finding Langston. (The Way Forward Is With a Broken Heart) (Excerpt)
Author: Alice Walker
Issue: Dec, 2000

 

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