133rd Street

In Langston Hughes’ Not a Movie, he paints a romantic vision of New York City by talking about an African American’s journey in escaping the south, crossing the Mason Dixon Line, and not stopping until he reached 133rd Street. The first stanza says, “and he got the midnight train/ and he crossed that dixie line/now he’s livin’/on a 133rd” (396).

Hughes represents 133rd Street in New York City as the ultimate goal toward freedom as well as a chance at happiness, something that probably seemed impossible to the African American living in the south. Hughes’ words about New York evoke similar feelings as Whitman does in poems like Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, recognizing New York as a place of universal community, (as I discussed in a previous post). Hughes might have even 
been playing on Whitman’s Crossing Brooklyn Ferry when the character in Not a Movie is “crossing” the Mason-Dixon line.

Hughes mentions 133rd street as the hopeful destination twice in this poem, and after a little research I learned that anyone who was a part of the Harlem Renaissance recognizes 133rd street as the “original swing street,”although the more well-known street during the Harlem Renaissance was 52nd.  An article called “The Rise and Fall of the Original Swing Street” in the New York Press notes, “ Society figures and celebrities—Tallulah Bankhead, Langston Hughes, Mae West—crept into the street’s basement-level speakeasies, drawn by the bawdy blues belting of the stout, unapologetically lesbian Gladys Bentley, or ribald vocalist Mary Dixon” (para 3).

Billie Holiday said, “133rd St. was the real swing street, like 52nd St. later tried to be… 133rd St. would always be the genuine article, even after it seemed everyone else had forgotten it ever existed.”

The character in Not a Movie wanted more than anything to reach 133rd street, what must have seemed like heaven on earth; music, alcohol, dancing, friends and (relative) freedom.

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2 Responses to 133rd Street

  1. Jenny Coe says:

    The picture you posted brings Hughes poem to life for me and I love the connection to Whitman’s, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. I love that Hughes was such an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance that he referenced 133th St. (“the genuine article”) rather than 52nd St.

  2. Nicole Monforton says:

    I like the comparison of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” and Hughes crossing the Mason-Dixon line. To each poet, New York city seems to represent a freedom- most importantly, freedom of expression. To the subject of Hughes poem, although he does not feel socially “free” in terms of race, 133th St. provides a mental freedom and liberation- the same sort of liberation portrayed in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”. I love the role New York City plays in each of these poet’s works. To them, New York is a place of “universal community”, and therefore provides one with a feeling of mental liberation.

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