Performance poet and one of the early pioneers of jazz poetry, Langston Hughes was one of the leading voices of the Harlem Renaissance through to the beat poets and the birth of bebop and the explosion of black performance arts in the 1960s.
Ahead of a performance of Langston Hughes’ Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz with Ice-T and Ron McCurdy, we asked the Barbican Young Poets to write their responses to Hughes’ creative masterpiece.
Ask Your Mama – Theresa Lola
Ask your mama why she keeps cutting you out of her will
Ask her why she’s so scared of the black child gaining an ounce of power
Ask your mama where the real root of her fear stems from
Tell her you found some of the trees after you saw your brother hanging off it.
Ask your mama why she keeps giving birth to racism
Ask her why she never claims some of her children, but
instead pits them against each other
Ask your mama why she keeps making jokes about the darkest child being the
Ask your mama why she always makes the black child the scapegoat
Ask your mama what drug the doctor prescribed her to avoid being infected by
Ask your mama if she thinks black skin is contagious
Ask your mama if that’s why she doesn’t hug you
Ask your mama if she’ll love you better if you get a degree
—I heard smart black men make the perfect children.
Ask your mama if she enjoys seeing war outside her window
Ask your mama why
Ask your mama why
Ask your mama why she doesn’t think her womb is wide enough to fit all the
different races her children come in.
Theresa Lola, born 1994, is a British Nigerian poet based in London. Her work has appeared in Brittle Paper. @theresa_lola
Warning – Damilola Odelola
A clap punctuates the end of each line.
In the quarter of the negroes
blood pressure is high
and shadows cut through roads
like diamond on glass.
We’ve learnt how to move
with the earth so
of the city sings
to the rhythm
of our steps.
‘Blacks on blacks’?
Darling, wait until Black
gets fed up if you using her
babies as food for the land.
she’ll tire of you sucking
the air from her lungs
like they’re helium balloons.
Only so much
mimicking one can do
before the joke runs
out of breath.
So, don’t waste time
because you see her dancing
in the quarter of the negroes.
where shadows cut through roads
like diamond on glass and
blood pressure is high
because we sit
in the sun
No Reply – Josette Joseph
are bricks falling on skin
across the table
into an empty purse
– a wound licked clean
By Brixton, now bone dry
a child should not be able to see
a mother’s bones so early
but the south of anywhere
is always a burial ground
matching the colour
of it’s soil
money is the first religion
brown women didn’t worship perfectly
now they all know ’bout hell.
across the table,
i asked the body i passed through
why she was empty of money
but full of blood.
her eyes replied
“how you gonna worship something you’ve never seen?”
and i thought,
what becomes of brown bodies
that doesn’t become of the sick?
is always made into wooden chairs,
and it’s flesh always served on white plates,
till the belly is full
yet the taste, always criticised.
that emptied plate became a brown family’s emblem,
hunger turned generations deep.
and last night
i found my mother
hung from Meshell Ndegeocello’s guitar strings uttering the lyrics
“capitalism has his hands around my throat”
like a memorised Bible verse.
it was then i realised
what becomes of brown bodies.
nothing less than
mouths that never small talk about the sun,
the women never look up from cut palms.
eyes that learned to read from gravestones
skin with dementia,
forgetting it is supposed to be touched
by something that is not
pointing them to the space
they should dig their own grave.
my mother and I live a few miles from you
on a concrete plantation of fruitless labour
and at the moment there is
a rumour passing through
the grapevine of brown bodies;
that if we are not careful
we will be picked to the bone
and swallowed like wine.
something is drunk off of our loving.
if we don’t divorce it quickly
it will burst wombs
born weak and shivering,
the alcohol of racial prejudice
swimming in its waters
and no western doctor will be able to help us.
my mother just told me this
across the table.
and I’m looking down
counting the rice grains
how many brown bodies
a spirit has to pass through
to feel the sun.
this biology is a lesson
the world has not yet learned
and a brown mother is still trying to unlearn
Find out more about Barbican Young Poets.
Ice-T and Ron McCurdy – The Langston Hughes Project, Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz takes place on Saturday 21 November as part of EFG London Jazz Festival.
Listen to a taster of The Langston Hughes Project: