In his 800-line, 12-part poem titled “Ask Your Mama,” the late Langston Hughes mentions “Mama” again and again.
“… And they asked me right at Christmas/If my blackness, would I rub off?/I said, ask your Mama.”
“… They asked me at Thanksgiving/Did I vote for Nixon?/I said, voted for your Mama.”
“… Yet they asked me out on my patio/Where did I get my money?/I said, from your Mama!”
Perhaps the best punch line is when “They rung my bell to ask me/Could I recommend a maid./I said, yes, your Mama.”
“He wanted people to imagine what life would be like if situations were reversed. He wanted to be thought-provoking,” said Ron McCurdy, Ph.D., who is a professor of music at the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
McCurdy is also a jazz trumpeter and leader of the Ron McCurdy Quartet, which will bring a multi-media presentation based on Hughes’ work to Misericordia University’s Lemmond Theatre in Dallas Township at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 18.
The show includes a jazz score McCurdy composed based on notes Hughes had written in the margins of his poetry manuscript. While the quartet plays the score, Hughes’ poetry will be spoken and images will appear on a large screen.
“You can see who Rob Abernathy was, who Louis Armstrong was,” McCurdy said, naming a civil rights leader and jazz trumpeter/composer.
The poem names many other historical figures, ranging from Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe, the first president of Nigeria, and Ahmed Sékou Touré, first president of Guinea, to abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, preachers Alexander Bedward and John Jasper, and New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau.
Names of segregationists such as South Africa’s Daniel Malan and Arkansas’ Orval Faubus show up, too, with Faubus’ name highlighted in a satirical description of a “dream” or, depending on the point of view, “nightmare” in which “the Negroes of the South have taken over, voted the Dixiecrats right out of power.”
“Sitting on their white verandas, wealthy Negroes have white servants,” Hughes wrote. “White sharecroppers work the black plantations,/And colored children have white mammies: Mammy Faubus/Mammy Eastland/ Mammy Patterson./Dear, dear darling old white mammies — /Sometimes even buried with our family!/Dear old/Mammy Faubus!/Culture, they say, is a two-way street:/Hand me my mint julep, Mammy./Make haste!”
“It’s an impetus for people to examine their own core values,” McCurdy said in a telephone interview. “It’s social commentary on the whole struggle for freedom and equality during the 1960s. He referenced freedom fighters in (many) countries, the NAACP, the Urban League and other organizations.”
One recurring element Hughes describes is “the quarter of the Negroes.”
It’s a place where “Niagara Falls is frozen” and “the pendulum is swinging.”
A place “where an ancient river flows past huts that house a million blacks and the white god never goes.”
A place “where the doors are doors of paper” and the wind “won’t wait until midnight for fun to blow doors down.”
The image of fragile, shabbily built doors references a time when “the country was expanding, African Americans were moving from South to North,” McCurdy said. “Hughes is talking about that whole period in Harlem, where people had to find a way to find jobs and feed their families in a not very accepting environment.”
Hughes created “Ask Your Mama” after serving as an official for the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1960, where he shared the stage with Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Horace Silver, Ray Charles and Muddy Waters. He intended to collaborate with other artists on a full performance of the work but died in 1967, before the project was completed.
The prolific poet wanted to bring people together and help them understand each other, McCurdy said. “He was someone who could speak to anyone, regardless of education. And he would ask them, are you doing all you can to push our culture forward? Are you responsive to people who don’t look or act or worship as you do?”
“We are a country of immigrants,” McCurdy said. “When this poem was written, the words were relevant, and they are so relevant today.”
The multi-media concert is free to Misericordia students and staff and costs $10 for general admission. Tickets will be available at the door or by calling the Misericordia box office at 570-674-6719.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT.