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Suitcase in Harlem

Sometimes his poetry gives the effect of disembodied voices. For a poet often praised as a pioneer of black-is-beautiful, Hughes had a somewhat impersonal, inattentive attitude toward that beauty. There isn’t much sensuous detail in his descriptions, even in their color consciousness. He is like a hawker who urges us to note the honey-gold baby, the peach-skinned girlie, the chocolate darling, the plum-tinted black, the miraculous variety of Sugar Hill. He presents, he does not represent. Much has been made of Whitman’s influence on Hughes, but one suspects that Whitman was filtered through Sandburg. Had Hughes allowed himself more of Whitman’s homoerotic images and less of the democratic vistas, he still might not have been able to give us anything like the Negro drayman’s ample neck. He was more orator than observer.

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Hughes’s rhetoric took on the fervor of the placard when he allied himself to the “marching power of the proletarian future.”5 He experienced a traumatic break in 1931 with his rich, high-handed patron Charlotte Mason (aka “Godmother”), who wanted him to conform to her notions of the primitive. He went to rest in Cuba, where he knew intellectuals and nationalist poets. From there he visited Haiti and was agitated by its poverty and ruined monuments to black aspirations. The economic crisis, the Scottsboro trial, resentment against Godmother, and identification with the oppressed in the Caribbean inspired the anticapitalist, anti-imperialist poems he began writing for the New Masses. In the 1920s Hughes believed that he had to express the peculiar “soul-world” of the black. In the 1930s he followed the line that he should use his work to unify the black and white masses: to expose the hypocrisy of philanthropists, the white church, white labor leaders, the timidity of black leaders, and the menace of jingoism. “White worker / Here is my hand.”

After an extensive reading tour of the deep South in 1931 his faith in the healing power of the word became aggressive (“Christ is a nigger / Beaten and black”). Pamphlets of his radical poetry sold like “reefers on 131st Street.” It was sometimes dangerous for him to appear in southern lecture halls. He read to the Scottsboro defendants on death row. “I hear your name isn’t really White Man. / I hear it’s something / Marx wrote down / Fifty years ago—/ That rich people don’t like to read.” In these slogan-like poems Hughes tried to sound like a wised-up black worker instead of the wise black spokesman. He moved from his social to protest poetry, in which he announced his intention to “pal around” with the Revolution, his “best friend.”

Drawn to the Revolution, Hughes went to Moscow in 1932 to work on a film about black America. The script proved inadequate and after much controversy the production was canceled. But Hughes stayed on for a year. He enjoyed the reception the Soviet government accorded him, as had Claude McKay a decade before. There was no toilet paper, but there was also no Jim Crow. Indeed, Hughes made a more comfortable living as a writer in the Soviet Union than he had in the United States. He traveled from Turkmenistan to Vladivostock, where he listened to peasants, minorities, and women testifying to their social betterment, and was impressed. His politics had been simplified early on into an utter detestation of Jim Crow and he viewed the Soviet Union almost entirely in relation to black life in the United States. But he was incapable of equating executions with lynchings and never criticized Stalin’s purges. He signed a letter in 1938 in support of the Moscow trials, and took no public position on the Nazi-Soviet pact. Unlike Richard Wright, Hughes had no real schooling in Party disputes and though he spoke of his poetry as containing the “dialectical solution” and made speeches that stressed the economic roots of racism, he was as ignorant of Marxist doctrine as he was of Catholic dogma.

Hughes offered himself free of contradictions, lent his famous name to front organizations, took up the cause of the farm workers in Carmel, California, and journeyed to Loyalist Spain as a correspondent for black newspapers. He was branded as a Communist poet, and this began to pose a threat to his career. In 1934 a black minister accused Hughes of “making saints” of Stalin and Lenin. He was barred from speaking at a YMCA memorial service in 1935 and from reading in Gary, Indiana, after the white school board threatened the black teachers. “When poems stop talking about the moon and begin to mention poverty, trade unions, color lines, and colonies, somebody tells the police,” he wrote in 1947.

But there were compensations. The International Workers Order published a collection of Hughes’s radical poems that Blanche Knopf had turned down, and helped him to found the Harlem Suitcase Theatre, where he was able to stage the agitprop plays that he began writing in the Thirties. However, he was at the same time writing plays about blacks that he hoped would reproduce the unexpected Broadway commercial success of Mulatto (1935). The depth of his commitment to radical organizations is suggested by a comment, in a letter to a friend, that he was just stringing along with the left; as far as anyone can tell, he was never a member of the Party. But as he relied on the left to circulate his work, a larger market became closed to him and he never managed to break into Hollywood.

Hughes omitted from his autobiographies any discussion of his political troubles. Rampersad traces in detail the campaign against Hughes that forced him eventually to dissociate himself from the left. “Goodbye Christ” (“Listen, Christ, / You did all right in your day, I reckon—/ But that day’s gone now”), a poem he had published in an obscure black journal in 1932, surfaced nationwide in 1940. “Somebody with malice aforethought (probably the Negro politicians of Uncle Tom vintage),” Hughes wrote later, gave a copy of the poem to Aimee Semple McPherson, who was listed in the poem as one of those who have sold out Christ, and who then picketed a publicity luncheon for “the red devil in a black skin.” The Saturday Evening Post, also disparaged in “Goodbye Christ,” republished the poem together with McPherson’s counterattack. Hughes issued a carefully worded statement of apology, in which he claimed the poem was only ironic, intended to shock religious people into awareness of the failures of the Church in regard to the poor. He said he could not write such a poem as “Goodbye Christ” again, and called attention to his many poems sympathetic to the “true Christian spirit.”

The war gave Hughes further opportunity to rehabilitate his image, with patriotic songs like “I’m America’s Young Black Joe,” “Freedom Road,” and “Day of Victory”; turgid radio poems like “Freedom’s Plow”; and the empty poems of Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943)—“Pearl Harbor put Jim Crow on the run.” Hughes reasoned that there was a need for black heroes, “a need for achievement and triumph, for strength growing out of our racial past,” and that black participation in the war would help to speed desegregation. Hughes joined war committees, made broadcasts for the State Department to the Caribbean. But he did not forget the beatings and lynchings that were then common. “I am an American—but I am a colored American.”

In his column for the black newspaper the Chicago Defender, he warned blacks against admiring the Japanese just because they were nonwhite, and applauded America’s freedom of speech, at a time when the Justice Department was threatening black editors with sedition if they protested too loudly against racism in the military, and when the Red Cross was storing the blood of blacks separately from that of whites. But in spite of his patriotic activities, Hughes was still subject to pickets by such groups as the Mothers of America, the Knights of Columbus, and the American Legion. Poems like “Good Morning Revolution” and “Goodbye Christ” would not go away. Radio commentators and columnists continued to denounce him after the war. Many intimidated communities canceled his lectures.

Rampersad relates that Hughes had been a subject of interest for the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities as early as 1938 and was an FBI target beginning in 1940, as a result of the McPherson incident. Hughes himself underestimated the strength of the anticommunist forces led by J. Edgar Hoover. He tended to dismiss his own notoriety and continued to join (as a black token) a great many progressive organizations, and supported Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 election. But after Du Bois was indicted in 1951 as an unregistered agent, Hughes was “determined to avoid the left,” Rampersad writes. While he expressed outrage at the charge against Du Bois, he resigned from several organizations and began to refuse invitations from radical groups, including one to visit the Soviet Union.

The campaign against Hughes culminated in 1953 with a subpoena from Roy Cohn. Hughes cooperated as a passive witness. He drew on his previous explanation of “Goodbye Christ,” and said that the point of view of his poems was inevitable, given that he was born poor, colored, and “stuck in the mud from the beginning.” He concluded his statement by reading the text of an “aria” from his opera, Troubled Island (“I dream a world where man / No other man can scorn, / Where love will bless the earth / And peace its path adorn”). During questioning he also made clear to the committee that he had become disillusioned with the Soviet Union.

Rampersad says that had Hughes defied McCarthy he would have destroyed “much of his effectiveness in the black world.” In Rampersad’s view Hughes’s public distancing from the white left was not only pragmatic, but an example of what he calls “racial bonding.” Hughes was so “psychologically dependent on the regard of blacks” that, unlike Du Bois, he “dared not risk the ostracism” that would deprive him of poetry readings and speaking engagements. But this may also be a way of saying that he wanted to protect his reputation and small income; that he was, like many other radicals, afraid of being ruined. As for his estrangement from the left being in reality a coming home to blacks, one could argue that he had nowhere else to go. True, many blacks were offended by “Goodbye Christ,” but others were offended by his blues poems while many blacks hailed his radical poems about Scottsboro or the Spanish Civil War. Hughes conformed to the anticommunism of the NAACP not because of his sensitivity to the wishes of the black masses, but from fear of the McCarthy committee’s power. The investigation had shaken him.

Rampersad notes that Hughes had encountered the most opposition when he was scheduled to speak before white or integrated audiences, inadvertently suggesting that Hughes’s return to a black audience was a refuge only because it was considered his place. In spite of his poverty, until the investigations Hughes had lived as a writer favored by the cultural moment. The collapse of the left made him vulnerable, much like the withdrawal of patronage at the end of the Harlem Renaissance. Strangely enough, in Rampersad’s biography, Hughes is more vivid as a personality when he is among his white friends in the John Reed Club in Carmel, California, than he is as a star in Harlem, a gracious presence in the corner bar, and after the McCarthy hearings Hughes slips from view and is lost in the travel schedule of the black spokesman.

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    Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest, edited by Faith Berry (Morrow, 1973).

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