First Edition of Langston Hughes' The Negro Mother, inscribed to the illustrator
Hughes, Langston. The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations. With decorations by Prentiss Taylor. New York: The Golden Stair Press, 1931.
8vo.; 20 pages; illustrated throughout with black-and-white line drawings; staple bound; original one-color pictorial wrappers on tan handmade Roma paper, with watermark.
First edition, in Roma wrappers. A presentation copy inscribed by Hughes to Prentiss Taylor, who was both the booklet’s illustrator and his partner in The Golden Stair Press: For Prentiss — / with my gratitude for his grand collaboration in our first booklet together — / Sincerely, / Langston / October 11, 1931.
Langston Hughes’ first self-published collection of poems, featuring “The Colored Soldier,” “Broke,” “The Black Clown,” “The Big-Timer,” “Dark Youth of the U. S. A.,” and, to close, the titular verse, each illustrated with evocative black-and-white line drawings by the artist, designer, and lithographer Prentiss Taylor.
Following his return from Haiti in 1931, Hughes wanted to produce a book of what he called “dramatic recitations,” and turned to his friend, the noted Harlem Renaissance photographer and writer Carl Van Vechten, for both advice and help. Van Vechten in turn introduced Hughes to Prentiss Taylor (1907–1991), a young white illustrator, lithographer, and painter who was quickly becoming known artistically on the New York City cultural scene. Taylor later said of the Hughes, “He never gave away or talked much, but he was discreet in a commendable way, not secretive. He knew many people but he never dropped names the way other people did. And he certainly was very honest and efficient.”
As Arnold Rampersad relates in volume one of his Life of Langston Hughes, Hughes wrote Taylor that he believed “the modern Negro Art Movement was largely over the heads, and out of reach, of the masses of Negro people,” and that he had seen “a distinct lack of rhymed poems dramatizing current racial interests in simple, understandable verse, pleasing to the ear, and suitable for reading aloud, or for recitation in school, churches, lodges, etc.,” but that he had written a group of poems “in this unpretentious fashion” that he wanted bring directly to the people.
With encouragement from Van Vechten, as well as a $200 loan, Hughes and Taylor co-founded a small, independent printing company called The Golden Stair Press, which they operated out of Taylor’s apartment in Greenwich Village. (The original contract between Taylor and Hughes, witnessed by Van Vechten, is in the collection of the Archives of American Art.) The idea was to create broadsides and booklets featuring texts by Hughes and illustrations by Taylor, and The Negro Mother was their first publication.
The fact that Taylor was white was seen as a positive by Hughes:
I prepared a smaller booklet of some of my newer poems to sell for a quarter. Its title poem was “The Negro Mother.” Prentiss Taylor, a young artist in Greenwich Village designed the booklet, endowed it with a dozen handsome black and white drawings and supervised the printing of it. Since Prentiss Taylor was white, and I, colored, I thought maybe such a book, evidence in itself of interracial collaboration and good will, might help democracy a little in the south where it seemed so hard for people to be friends across the color line. Few white people bought our book, but to Negroes, I sold three large prints. Poetry took me into the hearts and homes of colored people all over the south.
This collaborative spirit is evident not only in Taylor’s graphically bold yet sensitive illustrations, but also in the titular poem of the collection, which itself was inspired by both Hughes’ mentor, the Southern Black educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, and a Black woman called “Cookie Belle” who served as Taylor’s grandmother’s cook while he was growing up in Washington, D. C.; Taylor referred to her as “very much the [family] matriarch,” and that, “Through her, I became aware even as a boy of all sorts of racial obtuseness and racial disadvantages in Washington.”
The Negro Mother was an instant success: Hughes sold nearly 100 copies alone at the YMCA he was living at on West 135th Street, and Van Vechten wrote him that composer Aaron Copland was so moved by the title poem that he wanted to set it to music. A contemporary critic noted, “[Hughes] does not speak for the Negro. He speaks as a Negro. And one accepts his poetry not as propaganda but as a finished artist’s contribution to America’s writings.”
To further promote the booklet, Hughes embarked on an extensive tour of the American South, reading for rapturous audiences from Philadelphia to Birmingham, which resulted in his entire remaining stock of The Negro Mother selling out in just one week (Taylor quickly sent replenishments from New York). It was such a popular item, in fact, that Hughes joked to Van Vechten that in Birmingham they “sold like reefers on 131sth Street.” The tour also impacted Hughes both intellectually and emotionally; on March 5, 1932, he wrote to Edwin Embree of the Rosenwald Fund, “I feel for the first time, I have met the South. I have talked with many white Southerners, and thousands of Negroes, teachers, students, and towns people. I know now attitudes and complexes I had not realized before.”
In all, Golden Stair Press would issue three separate printings of The Negro Mother booklet, with the final published in February 1932. (Illustrated broadsides of individual poems in the collection were also created.) Hughes references this last printing in a letter to Taylor from Texas that month: “I hope I shall receive the third edition of the ‘Negro Mother’ soon, as we are all sold out.”
This copy was part of the first printing in October 1931, and while there is no reliable account of the number originally issued, based on the necessity for a third printing just four months later, it was clearly small. One of Hughes’ several reasons for producing the booklet himself was to keep the cost low enough so Black readers could afford to buy it, so most were printed cheaply and priced at just 25 cents each. However, a limited number—some sources state 17, though it could be as high as 20–25—were set aside to be hand-colored by Taylor, then signed by both him and Hughes, and priced slightly higher at 75 cents apiece; one of these copies is in the Prentiss Taylor collection at the Archives of American Art, with the “7” in the price added in holograph.
It appears there may have been an additional subset of the first printing, though. The wrappers of most copies are on yellow or light orange stock, yet this copy was published on tan, handmade Roma paper; other examples of this version are at Yale and quite possibly the Morgan Library, where the copy in the Burden Collection is described as being in “brown” wrappers. These may have been created as special proofs for presentation by the publishers to friends, family, and other associates, and could explain why the copies on Roma are among the very first inscribed copies of Negro Mother. As this copy is dated October 11, 1931, and is the only one known to be inscribed—effusively so—by Hughes to Taylor, his partner on the project, it is thus exceptionally rare.
Provenance: Prentiss Taylor’s estate via Rod Quiroz of Washington, D. C.