Who Was Langston Hughes?
At the height of his feme, Langston Hughes (1902-67) was esteemed as “Shakespeare in Harlem,” a sobriquet he borrowed for the title of a 1942 volume of poems. By this point in his career, Hughes had already been credited with some of the finest work in the great flowering of African-American literature known as the Harlem Renaissance. Just as significantly, he had also emerged as one of the most acclaimed writers of the radical Left.
Hughes never did abandon the language of racial protest; a revealing measure of his influence may be found in famous works whose titles are themselves quotations from his poems, among them James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. As such borrowings also suggest, however, Hughes has remained an important writer not for his politics alone, but because of his unusual genius for refining ideology into the language of popular art.
In his own self-estimate, Hughes was something of a “literary sharecropper.” Like his principal mentors, Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, he took pride in being both a poet of the people and a paid professional, and few modern American writers sustained a talent so consistently and with such prodigious results: sixteen volumes of poetry, ten collections of short fiction, two novels, two volumes of autobiography, nine books for children, and more than two dozen works for the stage, not to mention miscellaneous books on black history, literary anthologies, radio and film scripts, and song lyrics. The publication of a new selection of Hughes’s best short fiction,1 together with the recent release of his Collected Poems,2 makes it possible to appreciate anew the skill with which, in a remarkable range of styles and genres, he shaped his populist art to fit his times.
Hughes first came to notice, barely out of high school, with the publication in 1921 of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a poem composed in a ten-minute flash of inspiration on a trip to visit his estranged father in Mexico. As Hughes would remember the incident in The Big Sea (1940), the first of his autobiographies, the historical roots of African-American slavery suddenly unfolded before him in visionary cadence as his train crossed the Mississippi:
I’ve known rivers ancient as
the world and older than
the flow of human blood
in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like
the rivers. . . .
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” remains one of Hughes’s most anthologized poems, but its derivative romanticism gave little hint of the better verse to come. His true originality would lie instead in his response to the era’s mass migration of blacks from the agrarian South to the urban North, which prompted him to fuse the rhythms of black speech and black music, particularly blues and jazz, under the loose constraints of modernist versification.
To an older generation steeped in both the high English style of Matthew Arnold and the theatrical black American dialect of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Hughes’s initial work, written in the mundane language of jazz musicians, elevator boys, abused or abandoned lovers, domestic servants, lynching victims, and cabaret dancers, promised nothing less than a poetic revolution. He announced his credo in a resounding essay entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” influential for generations to come:
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near-intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand. . . . We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
In the best of Hughes’s early work, vernacular serves as a contrapuntal force to poetic craft. In “The Weary Blues,” for example, choruses of blues are embedded in a crushing psychological portrait of a musician’s life; in “Brass Spittoons,” the language of Scripture and black spirituals is joined to the demeaning orders issued to a black bellhop; and in “Cross,” a poem about miscegenation, the simplicity and repetitions of colloquial speech are honed to a fine edge:
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well. . . .
As such verse makes clear, Hughes’s choice both of voice and of subject matter committed him to an art of social protest—something he came to by family inclination. His grandmother’s first husband died in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, while a great-uncle, John Mercer Langston, was a leading black politician of the post-Reconstruction years. From an early age, Hughes too was quick to stand up to racial prejudice, and his writings are filled with evidence of a lifelong struggle against racial bigotry, not only in the South but in the North and in California, and not least at the hands of self-styled progressives.
Nevertheless, during this early period Hughes remained faithful to the ameliorative tradition of Frederick Douglass, dwelling on the tense dialectic between race and citizenship. His praise of color consciousness—for instance, “I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa”—was hardly contradicted by his hopeful celebration of assimilation. As the “darker brother” sent to “eat in the kitchen” while awaiting a place at the table of democracy, Hughes proclaimed in a famous early poem, “I, too, sing America.”
In this respect, the exoticist poems sometimes said to typify Hughes’s contribution to the Harlem Renaissance—“Danse Africaine” or “Nude Young Dancer,” for example, both of which were featured in a landmark 1925 anthology, The New Negro—are, in fact, not very typical at all. Quickly leaping beyond the stylized primitivism of the day, Hughes had discovered a fluent language in which black American life could be immortalized without resort to caricature. Yet by the time the stock-market crash of 1929 dropped the curtain on the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had grown altogether dissatisfied with the aesthetics of black modernism. His venue of choice would no longer be the Crisis, house organ of the NAACP, but rather New Masses, flagship of the Communist party.
Concluding that “we were no longer in vogue . . . we Negroes,” and bidding farewell to New York, he embarked on a reading tour of the South in 1931. By this point Hughes had joined the John Reed Club and worked alongside Whit-taker Chambers as a director of the pro-Communist Suitcase Theater, and his art now made race a weapon of class warfare. Sardonic short stories like “Professor” and “Fine Accommodations” registered Hughes’s dismay at the timidity of Southern black academics. His outrage at racial injustice was commemorated in Scottsboro Limited, a classic broadside comprising a one-act play and several poems, among them the blasphemous anti-lynching poem “Christ in Alabama.”
The Southern tour proved to be a harbinger of Hughes’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, which further stamped his work of the 1930’s with an urgent, frequently paralyzing militancy. Hughes himself took an inordinate number of pages to recount the Soviet trip and its aftermath in his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956), but he revealed little there of his core beliefs about Communism, which even now remain something of a mystery.
Hughes never joined the party, resisted many efforts to enlist his support for one radical project or another, and seemed little touched by the more serious devotion to ideology of those around him. At the same time, however, he served in 1934 as titular president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the party’s main African-American front, and few fellow-travelers wrote more vociferously than Hughes in praise of the Red revolution. A characteristic poem of the period, composed for the eighth convention of the Communist party in the United States, begins: “Put one more S in the U. S. A. / To make it Soviet.”
In the Soviet Union itself, where he stayed on for almost a year, Hughes ignored clear signs of corruption and repression. Welcoming the privileges of membership in the International Union of Revolutionary Writers, he dashed off “Goodbye, Christ,” a poem in which the salvific power of the church gives way to a Leninist pantheon and which would later so haunt his career as to become the centerpiece of an FBI probe. A set of essays for Izvestia favorably compared the Soviet justice system to the American, and in poem after poem in this period Hughes replaced a previously favorite image, the North Star of African-American freedom, with the Red Star of Soviet liberation.
It is tempting to conclude that Hughes was simply an “innocent abroad,” as Arthur Koestler, a short-term traveling companion on the Soviet trip, would remember him. In Hughes’s case, blindness to the Soviet charade, hardly unique among Western intellectuals of the day, sprang first from reading everything through the lens of race. But his seeming naiveté also had another source. Paid regularly and fairly well as a writer for the first time in his life, Hughes failed to grasp, or was not ready to admit, that the Soviets had good reason to reward talent that was critical of America. In any event, both in the Soviet Union and back home, Hughes’s writing of the 1930’s was invigorated equally by anti-Americanism and by the scramble for a dollar.
This was especially apparent in his dramatic work, from the sharp realism of Mulatto, to the socialist heroism of Don’t You Want to Be Free?, to the racial sentimentality of Little Ham and Way Down South (the last a misguided venture into screen-writing). In verse, likewise, he rewrote Sandburg’s maudlin “Good Morning, America” as “Good Morning, Revolution,” a buoyant prophecy of international Communism, while in one of his most telling poems of the decade Hughes sounded like John Steinbeck’s Tom Joad drunk on Marx:
O, let America be America
The land that never has been
And yet must be—the land
where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor
man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s,
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. . . .
Embarrassing though this poetry is—Hughes excluded most of his radical verse from his Selected Poems in 1951—it is also, as it happens, a superior instance of socialist realism in America and worthy of study for that reason alone. More important, though, Hughes’s loss of artistic direction in poetry during the 1930’s was balanced by his discovery of a mature voice in fiction.
The germ of Hughes’s talent in this field had already appeared in a few stories of the 1920’s—especially “Luani in the Jungles,” a Conradian experiment about the burdens of empire—and in Not Without Laughter (1930), an endearing coming-of-age novel noteworthy for its incorporation of blues and vernacular. Marked by Hughes’s new cultivation of polemic, the stories soon collected in The Ways of White Folks (1934)—several of them inspired by his tour of the South, and most now included in Langston Hughes: Short Stories—were damning indictments of American racism in an inventive range of settings.
A number of the stories reflect darkly upon the indulgences of the jazz age, in particular the exploitation of black talent by a white clientele. “Slave on the Block,” for example, compares the cultivation of Negro primitivism in the arts to the sale of chattel in the slaveholding South, while the suffocating patronage enjoyed by a young black pianist in “The Blues I’m Playing” is a thinly disguised send-up of the neuroses and anti-Semitism of Hughes’s former patron, Charlotte Mason.
As Hughes recognized, there were tragic consequences on both sides of the color line, South and North alike. “Father and Son,” “Cora Unashamed,” and “Home” variously dramatize the South’s frenzy over interracial sexuality; in the terrifying “Red-Headed Baby,” a white drifter returns to the cabin of his one-time black mistress to be shocked by a grotesquely retarded child, the result of his previous lust. By the same token, the white foster parents of a black child in New England are gradually revealed to be racists in “Poor Little Black Fellow,” while “Passing” takes the form of a letter of apology written to his mother by a light-skinned young black man after he refuses to recognize her in downtown Chicago. Still other stories treat subtly the heartbreaking isolation and mental derangement brought on by racial prejudice.
To be sure, Hughes’s stories are uneven—his endings tend to be tepid and unfocused, and some more resemble sketches than fully developed tales. Yet the intricate irony and sometimes stark satire which disappeared from his poetry when he became a booster for Stalin reappeared in his prose. The Ways of White Folks, a perfect bridge between Charles Chesnutt’s turn-of-the-century tales of the color line and Richard Wright’s naturalistic work soon to come, remains one of the most powerful collections in the history of the American short story.
As America’s Red decade concluded and war came on, Hughes, like most blacks, devoted himself to the Allied cause. He became a member of the War Writers’ Committee in 1942 and put his skills as a musical lyricist to good use by turning out homefront trivia like “Go-and-Get-the-Enemy-Blues.” His short stories now took a patriotic turn, and so did most of his poems of the 1940’s, while essays such as “My America” and “What the Negro Wants” fell squarely in the mainstream of the American Left, routinely anti-fascist and patriotic. Hughes had been taken aback by the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, yet once the Soviet Union emerged as an ally, he revived his opinion that Moscow, having “no colonies, no voteless citizens, and no Jim Crow cars,” was “the world’s new center.”
In some respects, Hughes’s new work was as much hampered by ideology as the work of the 1930’s; but at its most memorable, his wartime poetry made an admirable contribution to American blacks’ campaign for “double-V”—victory abroad against fascism and victory at home against segregation. The long poem “Freedom’s Plow” offers a nicely textured fusion of folk culture and political protest that points toward the best literature of the civil-rights movement of the 1950’s, while the title poem of Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943) honors Dorie Miller, a black hero at Pearl Harbor later killed in the Pacific.
In the previous year, Hughes had also become a regular columnist for the Chicago Defender, the black weekly, and was soon widely known for his relentless journalistic assault on the “Iron Curtains of Dixie.” At the same time, he continued to produce engaging short stories, the best of which, such as “The Gun,” “Who’s Passing for Who?,” and “His Last Affair,” are grounded less in the politics of racial oppression than in its startling psychological consequences. But the most important new development of Hughes’s mature career lay in a surprising vein.
Turning his longstanding interest in colloquial style toward comedy, and drawing on conversations in Harlem bars, Hughes created the fictive character Jesse B. Semple. Known eventually as “Simple” (his name puns on “just be simple”), this sarcastic raconteur accounted for more than a quarter of Hughes’s weekly Defender columns over the next twenty years. Collected in five volumes during Hughes’s lifetime, the sketches, best understood as fictional op-ed pieces, usually take the form of a dialogue between the narrator, playing the straight man, and Simple, the wise fool of Harlem; topics range from the haranguing women in Simple’s life to the slow death of Jim Crow to the cold war and nuclear disarmament. Initiated as a device to encourage black patriotism at the outset of the war, Simple became over time one of the freshest vernacular creations in American culture, comparable to the achievements of Mark Twain and Will Rogers.
“The race problem in America is serious business,” Hughes wrote in his preface to Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), but “humor is a weapon, too, of no mean value against one’s foes.” Running considerable risks with his readers’ sensibilities—in one typical instance, Simple offers a modest proposal to build a “Game Preserve for Negroes”—Hughes in these stories took the straightening power of comedy to the maximum.
By 1953, when he was summoned to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s committee, there seemed little in Hughes’s writing to warrant the accusations of Life magazine, J. Edgar Hoover, and others that he was now—or truly ever had been—a danger to the country. Hughes’s writing, though it remained often polemical on the issue of race, had clearly swung back toward the political center during the 1940’s, even if his public persona was admittedly harder to specify. In his carefully orchestrated testimony before McCarthy’s committee, Hughes satisfactorily accounted for the far-Left drift of his career in the 1930’s, while politely demanding artistic freedom. Although he was a cooperative witness, his tightrope act left the distinct impression of a man who wished neither to defend nor to renounce his former beliefs but simply to set them aside, like an abandoned literary style.
“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection,” Hughes would later write. Without sacrificing his devotion to racial justice, Hughes in the postwar years rediscovered his artistic roots by merging the storytelling of his fiction with the lyric intensity of his early verse. In Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) he assembled a kaleidoscopic set of urban images, superimposing painterly abstraction upon the rhythms of bebop, while in Ask Your Mama (1961) he forged a densely allusive long poem from the events of black history and the shifting styles of jazz (from Louis Armstrong to Charlie Parker to Ornette Coleman). Like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a work of the same moment and milieu, these two books transform folk culture into a complex, lasting vision. If Hughes’s art of the 1930’s was often trivialized by politics, these poems, together with his best work during the Harlem Renaissance, are really Hughes at his most “revolutionary.”
“How does it feel to be a problem?” W.E.B. Du Bois had asked in a haunting line in The Souls of Black Folk. More than 60 years later, Hughes, in “Dinner Guest: Me,” feared he had found no clear answer:
I know I am
The Negro Problem
Being wined and dined,
Answering the usual questions
That come to white mind
Which seeks demurely
To probe in polite way
The why and wherewithal
Of darkness U. S.A. . . .
In fact, though, Hughes had offered the only answers that true literature can provide. The 1960’s found him at odds with the shrill art of the black-power movement—“fingerpainting in excrement,” he once called it—and little of his poetry of these years lives up to his previous high standard. What will last in his writing, however, was well forecast by the retort he offered in 1933 to a Communist-party official who condemned jazz for its bourgeois decadence. “It’s my music,” Hughes replied, “and I wouldn’t give up jazz for a world revolution.”
The statement is in keeping with the enigmatic ebb and flow of political ideology throughout his career—and in keeping, too, with the complex balance in which he weighed the demands of his color and the demands of his art. If he was not Shakespeare in Harlem—Whitman in Harlem is a closer fit—it is hard to name a writer today who comes close to Langston Hughes’s remarkable stylistic breadth, let alone his capacity to express the pain of inequality without losing the joy of creativity.
1 Langston Hughes: Short Stories, edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper. Hill & Wang, 299 pp., $25.00.
2 Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel, Knopf (1994).