We were on spring break in Washington DC when we found a bookshop combined with an eatery named “Busboys and Poets.” Of course, I was instantly in love with this concept. As we waited on our meal, I wandered around the book portion of the store and noticed signs extolling peace, love, equality, and several quotes by Langston Hughes. Then, I saw the inspiration behind the restaurant on the menu. “Busboys and Poets is proud to be named in honor of renowned Black poet Langston Hughes. In the early 1920s, Hughes resided in Washington D.C. where he worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. One evening, he placed several of his poems on the dinner table of American poet Nicholas Vachel Lindsay. The next day, in local newspapers, Lindsay informed the world of his meeting with a ‘Busboy Poet.’”
Later, during our meal. I watched as an actual busboy approached a table with plates of food. Suddenly, he dropped one of the plates and it shattered on the ground in a loud crash. Food and porcelain scattered on the floor between two groups of people of different races: an older couple having breakfast and two women with their laptops working. He immediately dropped to the floor and began picking up the pieces. Even from a distance, I could sense his embarrassment.
And so did the people at the tables. As he crouched between them, they all reassured him that they were fine, no one was hurt, it happens, no big deal. A manager arrived with a broom and dustpan and the busboy quickly and quietly exited. The two couples repeated their reassurances to the manager. Then, one of the businesswomen asked the manager to bring the busboy back to the table. The manager agreed and brought the busboy back. He stood with the busboy in an act of solidarity to make sure nothing untoward happened. I couldn’t hear what the woman said, but I could tell by the look on her face that she was not berating him. She smiled and talked to him for a couple of minutes. I can only imagine that she told him a story of her time as a server when something similar happened to her or reminded him that this shouldn’t ruin his day. All I knew was that kindness was at the root of all the interactions with the busboy after the plate drop.
I realized in that moment; I’d witnessed a microcosm of the world Langston Hughes dreamed about even in the face of extreme inequality. We are not by any means perfect as Americans. And there is a reason a portrait of George Floyd hung on the wall of this cafe. But the idea that someday we can do more and be better is a promise that seems far away at times and attainable at others.
In the poem “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes challenges the American “ideals” by saying America has not fulfilled its pledges to the downtrodden of any color, the immigrants from any country, the lowest of the economic strata. Toward the end of the poem, he writes:
“O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!”
Hughes published that poem in 1936. Read that again – 1936. Yet, it still rings true today. But perhaps the kindness those patrons demonstrated to a busboy in 2023 means that not all hope is lost, and that the poetry of promise may still prevail.