Langston Hughes: Johannesburg Mines

I felt the powerlessness of enacting change when reading this. In only 6 lines Hughes presents a terrifying fact that so many are working the mines in Johannesburg. How do you react to such a fact? How can we create poetry from this horror? How can 6 lines do justice to 240,000 natives working in a mine?

In a way this reads like a headline, it grabs our attention in its brevity and its shocking fact. We know nothing of the substance of the situation, only the numbers, because how could we know the stories of 240,000 natives working in a mine? It’s overwhelming. And so perhaps Hughes is asking us to do some digging ourselves, to mine our own empathy, to understand poetry HAS to be made out of each of those lives. We who enjoy leisurely reading a newspaper do so at the expense of 240,000 natives working in a mine.

He uses “mines” as ownership, too. Mine could be as in slavery, as if these 240,000 are held captive to do this work, but also “mine” in that we have to make those people our own “mine”. We must face their humanity and see all 240,000 as individuals with hopes, fears, loves, lives, sins, anger, desire, appetite, intelligence, music, and all the things that make up a person.

To just read a headline of 240,000 isn’t enough, we HAVE to make poetry of the situation, we have to mine ourselves and find our shared humanity.