The brilliance of “Tired” by Langston Hughes

Dear President Biden,

I didn’t think the Chauvin verdict would come so quickly and rather than pivot now, I’m going to go with what I drafted this morning before work. But please know, I am relieved and grateful for Chauvin’s conviction on all three counts. At the same time, please know, I grieve for young Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old Black girl who was shot and killed by police this afternoon in Columbus Ohio just minutes before Chauvin’s verdict was read.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I realize this goes without saying, but Langston Hughes was leagues smarter than me. There are no doubt dozens and dozens of ways that his brilliance out shown the glimpses of insight that most of us mere mortals sometimes manage, but it’s his gift for oblique understatement that I’m referring to today. He must have known that if he hinted in the title of his poem about the worms eating at the rind of the world, no one would read it. I’ve come to this conclusion because virtually no one has read my last letter entitled Weevils and Worms. It’s an apt description, but clearly off-putting.

Hughes instead titled his poem Tired, a word that most everyone can relate to and that doesn’t carry much, if any, auto-baggage. One might be tired from a poor night’s sleep or a day of fun at the amusement park, or any number of other benign or “good” reasons for fatigue. And really, if one is White and unfamiliar with the grinding stress of racism or one is male and unfamiliar with the grinding stress of sexism or if one is straight and unfamiliar with the grinding stress of homophobia, and if one is comfortably moneyed and unfamiliar with the grinding stress of poverty there are likely few, if any overtly negative connotations associated with the word “tired.”  

So Tired it was. Or so I imagine.

Hughes then opens the poem itself with two innocuous-seeming, expansively welcoming lines:

I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,

as if he’s casually remarking to someone else waiting at the bus stop for an overdue bus, simply passing the time and establishing their common experience of a situation.

You can see him gently reeling us in with those two incredibly relatable lines,

I’m so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,

before he signals that he has something more in mind than a simple commentary on the shared experience of fatigue and that he instead wants to lament with us about the harshness of this world of ours by wishing it were good, beautiful, and kind.

For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?

But even as he pivots from the banality of fatigue, he stays well within the bounds of what was likely to be broadly relatable. He wrote the poem in 1930 and there was probably not a sentient adult (or child, really) alive then who couldn’t relate to the idea that the world was a harsh place, at least much of the time, who didn’t want the world to become good and beautiful and kind – and the sooner the better.

It’s only when Hughes pulls out the knife and uses it to metaphorically slice the world in two to get a good look at the worms eating at the rind do we understand that the tiredness he’s talking about is bone deep and surmise that it has everything to do with how the world is to him, a Black man living in the US during the Great Depression and who many biographers believe was gay.

Here it is (again) in full:

Tired
I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?
Let us take a knife
And cut the world in two –
And see what worms are eating
At the rind.

May we all be safe from the worms.
May we be willing to keep pushing for good, beautiful, and kind.
May we not settle for anything less than full justice for Ma’Khia.
May we accept that we’ve got to cut the world in two to see what is eating us alive.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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