Langston Hughes and Griff Davis’s History-Making Friendship

While Langston Hughes is primarily regarded for his poetic contributions during the first half of the 20th century, the Harlem Renaissance writer’s cultural influence stretched far beyond the page. Through an expansive network of friends, students, and collaborators, such as Dorothy West, Dizzy Gillespie, and Arna Bontemps, Hughes’s work crossed disciplines and mediums, shaping the art of other prolific creatives during and after his lifetime. One particularly meaningful friendship that existed between the poet and photojournalist Griff Davis can be explored up-close in The Ways of Langston Hughes: Griff Davis and Black Artists in the Making on view through July 8 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.

Davis first met Hughes at Atlanta University when he was a student at Morehouse College and Hughes was a visiting professor. Beginning as the poet’s personal photographer, Davis would go on to become Ebony Magazine’s inaugural “roving editor”(at the recommendation of Hughes) and eventually follow the writer to Harlem, staying in his East 127th Street apartment while attending classes at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. 

Although Davis eventually left New York, traveling abroad in Africa, Europe, and other areas of the United States as a trailblazing photojournalist and later a foreign service officer, his mentorship-turned-friendship with Hughes would last until the poet’s death in 1967.

A mentorship-turned-friendship, the bond between photojournalist Griff Davis and Langston Hughes began in 1947 when he met the poet in Atlanta.

Featuring a trove of Davis’s photographs and decades of correspondence between Davis and Hughes as well as artworks, vinyls, and other ephemera from the library’s archives, the show is divided into two sections focusing on Atlanta and Harlem.

“The point is to show the ways in which someone with that kind of cultural capital, still being in community with others,” Schomburg’s Associate Director of Public Programs and Exhibitions Novella Ford told Hyperallergic. “I think it’s important for creatives to see now and think about their own webs and networks, seeing it across disciplines.”

An adaptation of the traveling exhibition Griff Davis-Langston Hughes, Letters and Photographs, 1947 – 1967: A Global Friendship, which was first presented at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts in early 2020, this iteration was guest curated by Davis’s daughter Dorothy Davis, who has spent the last three decades preserving her father’s legacy and maintaining his extensive archival collection since his passing in 1993.

“It really does feel like I’m bringing my dad back to his old neighborhood to see an old friend in a new home,” Davis told Hyperallergic. “I thought that Schomburg was the perfect place to have it for the second round. It was just such a natural fit.”

Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes had a global network of artist friendships, collaborations, and mentorships that endured until his death in 1967.

Located at the corner of West 135th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard, the research library was a favorite spot of Hughes, who made frequent donations to its collections during his lifetime. His ashes are buried under the lobby floor, marked by Houston Conwill’s site-specific installation “Rivers” (1992) — a reference to Hughes’s 1921 poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Aside from Hughes, the library also attracted other artists like poets Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, performer Florence Mills, and writer Eric Walrond. In this vein, The Ways of Langston Hughes explores the Schomburg Center’s history as a crucial “intellectual and cultural hub” for Black residents in Harlem, Ford said.

“We have a photo of [Hughes] with Gene Blackwell Hudson, who was a librarian at the 135th Street Library and became the first sort of director of the Schomburg Center,” Ford said, adding that she hopes this exhibition will spark a curiosity in visitors to dive into the library’s extensive archives and resources.

Other highlights include a letter from Hughes to playwright Lorraine Hansberry, a watercolor by painter Joseph Barker of Hughes’s East 127th Street apartment, and four vinyls of poetry — one of which is a collaboration between Hughes and singer Harry Belafonte and another a joint project between Hughes and poet Margaret Danner. 

Accompanying the exhibition, the Schomburg Center plans to present two programs focusing on the library’s archives and Hughes’s influence, which will be announced at a later date on the center’s website.

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