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Suitcase in Harlem

The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. I, 1902–1941: I, Too, Sing America

by Arnold Rampersad
Oxford University Press, 468 pp., $9.95 (paper)

The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. II, 1941–1967: I Dream a World

by Arnold Rampersad
Oxford University Press, 512 pp., $24.95


Langston Hughes survived the Harlem Renaissance, unlike most of his peers of the 1920s, who either died young or faded away after the stock market crashed. “A literary sharecropper,” as he called himself, Hughes sustained through four decades a career as a professional black writer, the first since Charles Chesnutt, who published his short stories and novels around the turn of the century. Hughes made do with modest advances, fees from a mostly black reading and lecture circuit, and anything in between. He produced fifteen volumes of poetry, two collections of short stories, a novel, two volumes of autobiography, fifteen plays, several librettos, scripts, essays, songs, translations, anthologies, children’s stories, biographies and histories for the young, and two decades’ worth of a weekly newspaper column.1 When he died in 1967, at the age of sixty-five, the “bard of Harlem,” the “Poet Laureate of the Negro People,” was as much a part of Afro-American culture as the word soul.

The black power movement of the 1960s turned Hughes off because he was not a good hater, but its message of black pride was a consolation to him, having come of age with Marcus Garvey’s black nationalism in the aftermath of World War I. Hughes dedicated his work to revealing to black people their dignity and the beauty of black folk culture. He was on a mission as a writer of social purpose: “I explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.” He cast himself as the companion of black people, a troubadour in the folk tradition like blues singers and jazz musicians. His aim was to record the humor and wisdom of the low-down folk; to transcribe the talk he heard on the tenement stoops, on the southern road; to capture the sounds of the black neighborhood, and to honor its music. He never broke faith with this knit of identity even as he adapted it to the historical moment and the marketplace.

Yet for all his determination to make literature out of the black oral tradition, to place it in the service of the social struggle, and to “make hay” along the way, the sum of his career is greater than its parts. History is a sly boots, and for a generation of blacks that cannot identify with the frustrations of Jim Crow, and for whites who cannot understand the hard deal that faces working-class blacks, it is difficult to reconcile Hughes’s reputation as a poet-hero with his topical verse and uncomplicated prose.

Hughes’s image as the engaged black writer was a wall that never failed to protect him. Though his writing is transparent, he himself remains something of a mystery. Hughes loved to hang out, but not even a lifelong friend like Carl Van Vechten claimed to know the man behind the smoke. His extreme recessiveness drove Wallace Thurman to write of him in his roman à clef about the New Negro movement, Infants of the Spring (1932), that “the only unknown quantity was the poet himself…. [Hughes] was the most close-mouthed and cagey individual…. He fended off every attempt to probe his inner self [with] an unconscious and naive air.” Hughes’s autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956), offer lively sketches of his travels, his running battles with racism, his family and friendships. But his candid tone is deceptive. He is most opaque when he seems to be admitting the light. Perhaps he was indifferent to intellectual life and he was guarding his sexual ambivalence.

Arnold Rampersad’s excellent two-volume biography is a useful concordance to Hughes’s off-hand portrait of his times and himself, though he, like another recent biographer, Faith Berry, in Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem,2 stumbles when he tries to tell us about Hughes’s small hours and who, if anyone, was with him when he closed his door against the world. Rampersad argues that Hughes’s famous self-effacement was part of a calculated passivity that came from childhood hurt. He speculates that to win the love of the black—not white—race became Hughes’s obsession and, from a sense of duty and gratitude to the race, he substituted this love for any messier intimacy. One wonders. Hughes may have labored under an extraordinary need to “appease” the black race, but his elusiveness and self-confidence make one think of the saying that the prodigal is the man who has no fear of not being loved.

Life stepped on his feet before he could walk. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Hughes was a “passed around” child. His father, James Hughes, was ambitious and emigrated to Mexico to escape Jim Crow, and prospered. His mother, Carrie Langston, found a second husband in a man who wandered from one town to another in search of the better job. Hughes grew up mostly with his maternal grandmother, Mary, in Lawrence, Kansas. An educated woman who traveled with free papers during slavery, she illustrated in her life the history of what blacks expected from Abolition and Reconstruction and what they ended up with. She first married a free man, Sheridan Leary, who was killed in John Brown’s raid, and then Charles Langston, a veteran of the underground railroad, who went into politics in Kansas. He wasn’t as successful as his brother, a congressman from Virginia, and when Charles died in 1892 he left more speeches than money.

Mary Langston refused to take in washing or to cook for whites. She rented rooms to students. Sometimes she and Hughes had only salt pork and dandelions to eat because she saved to pay the mortgage in their white neighborhood. She belonged to no church because churches were segregated. “Nobody ever cried in my grandmother’s stories,” Hughes said in The Big Sea. “They worked, or schemed, or fought. But no crying. When my grandmother died [in 1915], I didn’t cry, either.” The mortgage man got the house. Books had begun to happen to him, “where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, and not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.” Hughes attended white schools and so came to black folk culture from a distance, through the tales of sacrifice that were his grandmother’s lullabies.

The black folk culture that fascinated Hughes was urban, that of the black transplanted by the great migration. When he joined his mother and stepfather in Cleveland in 1916, “they seemed to me like the gayest and bravest people possible—these Negroes from the Southern ghettos—facing tremendous odds, working and laughing and trying to get somewhere.” Whites resented the black invasion until surrender brought profits. His mother worked as a maid to help pay the rent. He flourished at high school among Russian Jews and Polish Catholics who supported Eugene Debs and the Revolution. Hughes was also introduced to the dialect poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar and the free verse of Carl Sandburg, his “guiding star.”

He learned to live with what Du Bois called the “double consciousness” of the black American: a popular student on one side of town, a poor black face on the other. He showed none of the black middle-class tendency to prove he was the equal of whites by being better than they were. Hughes presented himself as porous to racial insult. “We wear the mask that grins and lies,” one of Dunbar’s poems begins. Irony or the silence of moral superiority was Hughes’s defense, which exasperated those who played the usual Yahoo tricks. He was suited by temperament to write in the laughing-to-keep-from-crying mood, in the tradition that deflects provocation, racial and otherwise.

On a visit to his father in Mexico in 1919—“My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro”—Hughes contemplated suicide and collapsed from a psychosomatic illness. “I hated my father.” Still, he went again to Mexico the next year to get away from his mother. His poems began to appear in the Crisis, but his father wanted him to study in Europe to become an engineer. His mother wanted him to get a job and forget college. However, the rumor of Harlem had reached him. He never saw his father again after he left Mexico later that year, and when James Hughes died in 1934 his son wasn’t mentioned in his will. Hughes had a harder time with his mother’s downward tug. Whenever her second husband wandered off, she expected help from Hughes. She once sold his possessions when he was away. When she died in 1938 he had to borrow the money for her funeral.

Maybe Hughes regarded the black race as one big family because he never had with his the feeling of belonging that he believed was an essential part of black life. He withdrew into black culture as one would into the Gospels, and if any inner conflict animates his work, apart from his life as a Negro, it is his ambivalence toward his parents, which he not so much resolved in as revised for melodramatic poems, stories, and plays about long-suffering black mothers or the cruelty of white fathers toward their mulatto sons.

The interesting thing is not that Hughes’s work was available to the black masses, but that the black masses were accessible to him. Once he dropped out of Columbia University in 1922 and moved down into Harlem, he began what he called his own life, the struggle to find a job as a colored boy. He continued to publish poems in black journals like the Crisis, Opportunity, and the Messenger. He met the black leaders of the day but was more comfortable with his fellow menial workers. The writers of the Harlem Renaissance came mostly from the black middle class. Hughes, however, was an escapee from the “Talented Tenth.” Throughout his life he castigated the “urge within the race toward whiteness” and the desire for an “Episcopal heaven.” He could have been tormented by the quest for a color-less vision, as Countee Cullen was, or by the need to conquer the sonnet with protest themes, as was Claude McKay, an early idol whose life as a vagabond with a vocation Hughes’s resembles. But he elected to immerse himself in black folk culture and subdued himself to it with genuine humility, which is both the strength and the problem of his work: he wrote about it with more feeling than imagination.

After Columbia Hughes served a romantic apprenticeship to the Negro life he would “sing” about. In 1923 he signed up on a ship and, except for Leaves of Grass, (literally) threw overboard his books in favor of the crew’s tall tales. After a tumultuous journey through African ports he sailed away again on a freighter to Rotterdam. He jumped ship and caught the night train to Paris, where he joined the black expatriate set as a dishwasher in a jazz club. He was robbed in Italy and lived among rough beachcombers until a ship returning to the US that would hire blacks came into view. In 1924 he was working in a Washington, DC, laundry to support his mother.

  1. 1

    See The Langston Hughes Reader: The Selected Writings of Langston Hughes (George Braziller, 1958) and The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage, 1974).

  2. 2

    Morrow, 1983.

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