My People: The Poem and the Photographs
In his afterword to My People, photographer and poet Charles R. Smith, Jr. describes how he decided he should illustrate Langston Hughes' poem “My People.” Since, as he found, “Langston wrote the poem to celebrate the pride he had for his black brothers and sisters in the late 1920s, when blacks were not acknowledged much in society,” Smith decided he “wanted to show that like any other group of people, black people come in all shapes, sizes, shades, and ages, and that each of us is unique." Charles R. Smith, Jr. did just that in this beautiful book.
The poem “My People” is 33 words long. However, despite its brevity, Langston Hughes provides a heartfelt and moving paean to the beauty of “my people.” He describes the beauty of the night in relation to the beauty of their faces, the beauty of the stars in relation to the beauty of their eyes, and the beauty of the sun in relation to the beauty of the “souls of my people."
The background of every page is black. Every double-page spread contains a brief segment of the poem in large, generally tan, letters and close-up, vibrant and light-filled, sepia-toned photographs of one or more faces or portions thereof. Against the stark black background, the photographs are both dramatic and beautiful. As planned, Smith shows a wide variety of people, from babies to older adults, "in all shapes, sizes, [and] shades." Many of the faces radiate joy. The fact that photographer Charles R. Smith, Jr. is also a poet may account for his ability to so sensitively and beautifully illustrate the poem. Charles R. Smith Jr. received a 2010 Coretta Scott King Book Award for his photographic illustrations for My People.
Langston Hughes, AuthorLangston Hughes was born in 1902 and died in 1967. As the Library of Congress Web site relates,
- "Langston Hughes was one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance… His literary works helped shape American literature and politics. Hughes, like others active in the Harlem Renaissance, had a strong sense of racial pride. Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children's books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality."
Charles R. Smith, Jr., PhotographerAs I mentioned, photographer Charles R. Smith, Jr. is also a poet. His picture books that combine his poetry and photography include Rimshots: Basketball Pix, Rolls, and Rhythms and Short Takes. He also illustrated Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” with his photography for a picture book published as If: A Father's Advice to His Son. In addition, Charles R. Smith, Jr. has written a number of other children’s books that were illustrated by others – most notably, Twelve Rounds to Glory: The Story of Muhammad Ali, illustrated by Bryan Collier, a 2008 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Award winner.
My People: My Recommendation
I recommend My People for all ages. It can be enjoyed as a read aloud for younger children. The illustrations are large enough to share with a group, and the book could serve as an introduction to the poetry of Langston Hughes in a classroom. (Ginee Seo Books, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2009. ISBN: 9781416935407)