Black Nativity

I was a junior in high school when my my mother took me downtown to Ford’s Theatre to see “Black Nativity.” I had never heard of Langston Hughes before, so a day before the performance, I looked him up in our World Book Encyclopedia, the font of all facts in those pre-Internet Days. I went from the entry on Hughes to Jean Toomer to James Weldon Johnson, then the entry on The Crisis, the magazine published by the NAACP.

It was an evening performance. As we approached the theatre we saw people leafleting in front of the old steps to the rickety theatre. I took one, curious, and scanned it quickly, looking for a clue to why the picketers were there protesting.

“ It says that Langston Hughes is a Communist,” I said. I pointed to a few phrases.

Hughes had travelled to Moscow. He had supported the anti-Franco faction in the Spanish Civil War. He’d been called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

This was at the height of the Cold War, and my mother was as anti-communist as the next person in our neighborhood and in our extended family. She once returned from a Sunday afternoon lecture at Johns Hopkins and remarked that the speaker was “a little pink.” She had to explain to me what that meant — not a red Communist, but left-leaning. A fellow traveler. Someone who sympathized with communists.

I thought of the scary maps in my father’s American Legion magazine, black and white maps of the world with Russia, China, and the Soviet republics in red. The red dripped like wet paint towards Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, approaching Germany and Italy. Cuba, so close to the U.S., was red as well — except for the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo. I handed the leaflet to my mother.

My mother was quiet for a bit. Then she said she didn’t think Langston Hughes was a communist. I decided not to worry about it. We climbed the stairs into Ford’s Theatre and then trudged up to the balcony.

It was the first time I’d ever seen a play with an all-black cast. It was the first time I’d heard gospel music live, as opposed to on the radio. I was mesmerized. Thoughts of about communism, Nikita Khruschev, about Fidel Castro, gave way to the music and the poetry down on the stage, far below our balcony perch.

I absent-mindedly crumpled up the anti-Hughes leaflet into a tight ball and let it fall to the seat of the woman seated in the row in front of me.

The following weekend, I wrote an extra credit report on the Harlem Renaissance. I made no mention of Communism, only of having seen Black Nativity.

A week later, President Kennedy was assassinated. It would be another six months before I pulled several of Hughes’ poetry collections from the shelves at the Pratt Library.

I wonder what on earth made my mother want to see Black Nativity. Did she have season tickets to Ford’s that she had to use up? Did she go because the ads said it was a “Joyous, Spirited Musical Hit?” She did love musicals. Did she care not at all that Hughes might have been a communist?

No matter. In those days of so much segregation in Baltimore. Ford’s theatre that night was full of black theatregoers. Everyone was dressed up, as was the custom then. And my world began to be a little less parochial.

Part of the journey started that night — that, and of course, the Langston Hughes books from the Pratt.