Longtime biographer Arnold Rampersad said his new volume, The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, reveals a “deeper, more complicated” man than the public has ever known. Sitting comfortably on stage at the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, co-editors Rampersad and David Roessel, professor at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, spoke on the complexities of the man called the voice of “Negro America.”
Rampersad, who has twice beenhonored with an Anisfield-Wolf award for his work on Langston Hughes, said that the writer’s calling came to him early in life. “He was going to take on one of the most extraordinary challenges that anyone could take on—that is to be an African-American in the 1920s and decide, ‘I want to be a writer. And oh, by the way, I want to write about African-American culture,'” Rampersad said. “Not the number one topic in literature by any stretch of the imagination.”
Roessel praises Hughes’ prescience: “From this early age, he knew that people would be interested in his letters. They understood that they were doing something that had not been done before and the world was going to take notice. And it’s nice that the world had.”
Watch their conversation in the video below.
We won’t spend too much time on an introduction today; let’s get right to the meaty stuff. Recently, our 2012 winners all had a chance to speak with Dred-Scott Keyes on the Public Radio Exchange to discuss their books and the deeper themes within. Take a listen to David W. Blight and Esi Edugyan in part one, and David Livingstone Smith and Arnold Rampersad in part two:
For someone as storied as Arnold Rampersad, sometimes the best words of praise come not from awards jurors or book critics, but from colleagues who have worked side by side with you for years. Shelly Fisher Fiskin, who co-edited Oxford University Press’ Race and American Culture series with Rampersad, wrote that there are few people more deserving of an award than her longtime colleague:
An extraordinarily elegant writer, a meticulous researcher, and a scholar gifted with the ability to focus on what matters most about any subject that he tackles, Arnold Rampersad richly deserves this honor.
His biographies and his literary scholarship have had an enormous impact on our understanding of American culture, illuminating issues of race and racism in America in groundbreaking, crucial ways. He has been a role model for generations of scholars in American Studies, English, and African American Studies. I congratulate the Anisfield-Wolf jury for recognizing his important contributions to the cultural conversation with this award.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Congratulations again to an amazing writer.
Arnold Rampersad, our 2012 Anisfield-Wolf winner, has a special tie to the Cleveland area, where our awards are hosted every year. As one of the nation’s definitive biographers, he has covered noted Cleveland resident Langston Hughes in detail, publishing two volumes of The Life of Langston Hughes, served as editor of Collected Poems of Langston Hughes and Poetry for Young People: Langston Hughes. We are looking forward to his remarks at the 2012 ceremony in September!
Here’s a few tidbits about our 2012 lifetime achievement winner that you can chew on:
Rampersad is a 2010 National Humanities Medal winner, along with Anisfield-Wolf jury member Joyce Carol Oates. The committee honored him for his skills as a gifted biographer and literary critic.
He won the 1987 Anisfield-Wolf award for nonfiction, for his work, The Life of Langston Hughes.
He’s been featured at Authors@Google, the web giant’s program that allows for some of the world’s most innovative authors to share their work with a greater audience, video above. We welcome him to the Anisfield-Wolf family and look forward to the ceremony in September!