African-Native-American: Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison

February 15, 2012

Langston Hughes. African-American, of course. Yet a not insignificant fact about his biography is that his both his maternal grandparents, Mary Patterson and Charles Henry Langston, were of mixed races: African-American, Native American, and European.

Hughes did not seem to have made much of that genealogy. That cross-stitched fabric, African-Native-American, wouldn’t be fully thematized till Toni Morrison wrote about it in Song of Solomon. In that book, as Milkman goes further and further south in search of his ancestor, Solomon or Sugarman, the “flying African” in children’s song, what he discovers instead are ancestors with names like Sing Byrd and Crowell Byrd — or, more likely Singing Bird and Crow Bird, people who “had mixed their Indian names with American- sounding names.”

Morrison’s own great-grandmother, Ardelia Willis, was Native American. During Reconstruction she received 88 acres of land – an inspiration for “Lincoln’s Heaven” in Song of Solomon. Ardelia’s son (who would later lose that land) was named John Solomon Willis.

Morrison never let go of that Native American strand of the story. In her most recent book, A Mercy, the slave trade and the destruction of the indigenous population were parallel narratives, told alternately by Florens and Lina, fellow laborers on the Vaark Farm.

Tiya Miles, a historian at the University of Michigan and MacArthur Fellow, devotes her scholarship to Afro-Indian communities.  Toni Morrison has been doing something like that for 35 years.  And poets like Simon Ortiz are helping her.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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