Coffee Break by Langston Hughes Inspires New York Art Exhibit

Currently on display at the SVA Curatorial Space is a contemporary art exhibit inspired and informed by Langston Hughes’ famous short story, Coffee Break. In the story, a black  man named Simple struggles through a conversation with his white boss, as the man asks what it is that “THE Negro” wants. “I am this Negro” asserts Simple, but the boss’s misinformed curiosity propels the conversation forward to a truth that he was not ready for.

‘Negroes are the ones who want to be integrated,’ said my boss.

‘And white folks are the ones who do not want to be,’ I said.

‘Up to a point, we do,’ said my boss.

‘That is what THE Negro wants,’ I said, ‘to remove that point.’

‘The coffee break is over,’ said my boss.

Up to a Point. The name of the exhibit in conversation with this story, an exhibit that touches on the complexity of inclusionary politics and the effects of tokenism in the art world. Curator Onyewuenyi said of the exhibit’s inspiration:

“For me, Simple as a character and ‘Coffee Break’ brought a narrative to a lot of simmering tensions. But it also highlighted that integration is not simply black and white or a generational dilemma we’ve overcome… That is the point that Simple was wrestling with. The dialogue from his boss is this hollow form of empathy doing the rounds in today’s society, an empathy that operates without considering one’s position in a critical way.”

The exhibit is home to pieces that highlight the hyper awareness of black individuals in white spaces, such as Tiona McClodden’s The Backlight. Two reflective jackets that call attention to how aggressively museums are to incorporate black patrons as a form of self celebration. Onyewuenyi says, “It’s a form of tokenism that the jacket silences, subverting the light in and around the black body.”

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Pieces that are critical of Hughes and his views are also part of the exhibit, fleshing out the complexity behind these conversations. Anti-integration works offer up an oft unheard point of view. In her video art piece #mood 13 (Langston Hughes Betrayed Me) , E. Jane communicates this counterpoint to the integration Hughes famously advocated for. “sorry guys but i don’t think we should have to be integrated to feel safe. that’s super colonial. that implies that i have to love my colonizer in order to be protected” she writes on her blog.

These are important conversations and the art produced around them is both beautiful and thought provoking. Find more information about the exhibit here.


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