Christmas in 1950 was a low time for the writer Langston Hughes. The opera for which he’d written a libretto — The Barrier — was a commercial and critical failure; his recently published book Simple Speaks His Mind was critically praised, but not a bestseller. He was living with his friends Toy and Emerson Harper at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, and attempting to work on a new book and opera. So instead of giving his large community of friends Christmas gifts, he sent out typewritten postcards that expressed both his financial state, and enduring holiday cheer. One proclaimed:
If times were not so doggone hard
I might send you a gift.
But since I’m broke as broke can be,
Here’s just a Christmas lift:
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University is exhibiting a pop-up display through December 20 of Hughes’s 1950 postcards, as well as Christmas cards he received from friends. The two cases of ephemera were selected from 17 holiday card boxes at Yale that hold material dating from 1935 to 1966. They’re part of Hughes’s donation of his papers to Yale, which began in 1941 and continued until his death in 1967. Yale now has 305 linear feet of archives from Hughes in its James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Art and Letters in the Yale Collection of American Literature (YCAL).
Earlier this year, the Beinecke featured a large collection of Harlem rent party cards Hughes amassed between 1925 and 1960 in the exhibition Gather Out of Star-Dust: The Harlem Renaissance & The Beinecke Library. The current Langston Hughes Holiday Display: The Thought that Counts was organized by Beinecke student interns Mariah Kreutter and Ryan Seffinger with Michael Morand, the library’s communications director.
“Langston Hughes’s extensive archives provide numerous insights into his long life and career,” Morand told Hyperallergic. “His 1950 typewritten Christmas postcards illuminate a period when his finances were limited though his friendships remained abundant. He wittily addressed his wide circle of friends that year with verse that tell how times were tough and still convey resilience and joy. Likewise, the 17 boxes in the archives of Christmas cards he received and kept over many decades demonstrate the breadth and depth of his personal and professional relationships with other cultural and civic leaders.”
One is a 1944 anti-fascist card from black intellectuals and activists William and Louise Patterson, with a collaged photo of their daughter “driving for Victory”; another 1950 card, from Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, the founders of Cleveland’s Karamu House, is decorated with a block print of an African mask. A 1951 booklet published by the Boston Department of Social Services, called “A Christmas Message in Pictures,” has illustrations by Allan Rohan Crite that interpret the nativity story with a dark-skinned Holy Family seeking refuge in the contemporary city streets.
Morand notes in an article for YaleNews that Arnold Rampersad, in his 1988 The Life of Langston Hughes, wrote that in the final weeks of 1950, Hughes found himself “in a melancholy mood, his spirits sinking lower again as he again became a target of red-baiting.” Hughes would later pen the more optimistic “Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight In New York” in 1965, in which “Our old Statue of Liberty / Looks down almost with a smile / As the Island of Manhattan / Awaits the morning of the Child.” Yet even in the down year of 1950, the postcards show his writing wit still bristling. For those who may have had a hard year leading up to these winter holidays, there’s some defiant joy to glean from his wry greetings:
Broke and busted
Would be disgusted
If I hadn’t trusted
In Santa Claus!
Langston Hughes Holiday Display: The Thought that Counts continues through December 20 at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (Yale University, 121 Wall Street, New Haven, Connecticut).