Hughes and Taylor image
 
 

Broke (poem, 1931)
Broadside sheet, ca. 17" x 10-1/2"
Poem by Langston Hughes and watercolor illustration by Prentiss Taylor
Gift of S. Dillon Ripley

Photograph 1

 


Broke (poem, 1931)
Broadside sheet, ca. 17" x 10-1/2"
Poem by Langston Hughes and watercolor illustration by Prentiss Taylor
Gift of S. Dillon Ripley


Broadsides were single-sheet notices or announcements, printed on one or both sides of the sheet and read unfolded. For centuries, broadsides have been a popular format for the mass distribution of poetry, artwork, political announcements and debate issues, advertisements, prayers, opinions on any topic, sermons, scandals and rumors, and news reports.

(James) Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the blossoming of African American art, literature, culture, and criticism of the 1920s and 1930s, centered primarily in New York City, but flourishing also in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other urban centers. In 1925 he won first prize for poetry in Opportunity magazine. During the Renaissance and afterward, he collaborated with the leading African American artists, writers, and musicians of the time, including Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Wallace Thurman, and Countee Cullen.

Hughes was a prolific poet, playwright, essayist, and compiler of anthologies. Influenced by jazz and blues music, he structured his poems with such a musical sensibility that they fairly sing on being read or recited. His work reflects his interest in all aspects of the black experience, especially of the working class.

In 1925 Hughes met noted amateur photographer and music, art, and literature critic Carl Van Vechten. With Van Vechten's encouragement, Hughes published his first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Van Vechten then introduced Hughes to Prentiss Taylor, a painter and lithographer from Washington, D.C., who came to New York to start a career as a theater designer. Hughes and Taylor soon became friends and collaborators.

Broke was printed as Broadsides Number 3 from the Golden Stair Press, a small publishing concern started by Hughes and Taylor with a $200 loan from Van Vechten. The illustrations are hand-colored. This sheet bears a written dedication under the title: "For William [or Walter?] Smalley Christmas 1934 Prentiss Taylor."

While Hughes wrote and traveled, Taylor ran the press out of his house at 23 Bank Street in Greenwich Village, New York City. For several years, Hughes and Taylor published important volumes of socially conscious poetry and art, including The Negro Mother (1931), inspired by educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and Scottsboro Limited (1932), about the trial of the "Scottsboro Boys" in Alabama. Yet the Golden Stair Press did not survive for long; there were always money woes. In the fall of 1931 poet Langston Hughes toured the South, reading from his poems at universities and community gatherings to sell copies and raise money. The tour was a success, with the poems selling very well as booklets and broadsides.

Remember that Hughes wrote this poem during the Great Depression, when many Americans were out of work and struggling to survive. Throughout his career, Hughes often addressed the difficult subjects of cultural identity, race, racism, and poverty in his poems and plays.