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.
The two suffered the humiliations inflicted by their “better class” relations. For “relief,” Hughes sought out the blacks who didn’t care about his family tree or his light skin, and weren’t ashamed of barbecue or the blues. Although he worked briefly as an assistant to the black historian Carter Woodson, he preferred the less rigorous position of busboy at a hotel, where once he slipped some of his poems on Vachel Lindsay’s plate. And, as always, he kept in touch with the world according to Lenox Avenue. The pattern of his life, like his themes, was set: no matter how far he traveled he kept a suitcase in Harlem.
What Carl Sandburg had done for Chicago’s hog butchers and tool makers, Hughes would try to do for Harlem’s elevator boys, ladies’ maids, and crap shooters. His first book, The Weary Blues (1926), with its nude dancers, tomtoms, swaying hips, wine maidens of the “jazz-tuned night,” “sleek black boys in a cabaret,” and “dark brown girls in blond men’s arms,” belongs entirely to the Harlem Renaissance. The Negro was in vogue, but even then Hughes’s repetitive, automatic images were considered loaded. “The rhythm of life / Is a jazz rhythm, / Honey. / The gods are laughing at us.” The question “Does a jazz band ever sob?” and the cries of “strut and wiggle” and “Jazz-band, jazz-band / Play, pLAY, PLAY!” extend by means of their racial context Sandburg’s “Jazz Fantasia” (“sob on the cool winding saxophones. / Go to it, O jazzmen”) to encompass Harlem’s “salt tears,” its dread of the gray dawn, the social reality lurking outside the cabaret.
Fierce identification with the sorrows and pleasures of the poor black—“I myself belong to that class”—propelled Hughes toward the voice of the black Everyman. He made a distinction between his lyric and his social poetry, the private and the public. In the best of his social poetry he turned himself into a transmitter of messages and made the “I” a collective “I”:
I’ve known rivers: 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.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Missis sippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
(“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”)
The medium conveys a singleness of intention: to make the black known. The straightforward, declarative style doesn’t call attention to itself. Nothing distracts from forceful statement, as if the shadowy characters Sandburg wrote about in, say, “When Mammy Hums” had at last their chance to come forward and testify. Poems like “Aunt Sue’s Stories” reflect the folk ideal of black women as repositories of racial lore. The story told in dramatic monologues like “The Negro Mother” or “Mother to Son” is one of survival—life “ain’t been no crystal stair.” The emphasis is on the capacity of black people to endure, which is why Hughes’s social poetry, though not strictly protest writing, indicts white America, even taunts it with the steady belief that blacks will overcome simply by “keeping on”:
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Whites were not the only ones who could be made uneasy by Hughes’s attempts to boldly connect past and future. The use of “black” and the invocation of Africa were defiant gestures back in the days when many blacks described themselves as brown. When Hughes answered Sandburg’s “Nigger” (“I am the nigger, / Singer of Songs…”) with “I am the Negro, / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa” (“Proem”) he challenged the black middle class with his absorption in slave heritage. Other poems exude the “joy unconfined” of folkways many blacks denied. Similarly, to call the South “honey-lipped, syphilitic” or to say “My old man’s a white old man” was for many to talk too frankly about miscegenation. The question is whether Hughes fulfilled what he saw as the black writer’s purpose: to navigate between the dangers of stereotype and a surface, idealized view of blacks.
Most of the poetry in The Weary Blues, which launched Hughes’s career, written under the spell of the sea, Harlem, Paris, and his own sense of isolation while traveling, falls into his “lyric” category and shows limitations that are sometimes obscured by the rightness of his message. When he departed from large racial subjects and the authority of innocent faith, he seemed to be pretending to have poetic responses to love, wind, or the March moon, as if he couldn’t truly disclose in his poetry any sensations not concerned with race. Moreover, before he found a suitable idiom what he wrote about everyday black life sounded forced (“I work all day / Said Simple John / Myself a house to buy”) or worse (“Ah, / My black one. / Thou art not beautiful”). Almost immediately Hughes discovered that the blues idiom was the language of the black whom he wanted to reveal:
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
(“The Weary Blues”)
Black music came north when Hughes was growing up. He was enraptured with the low-down sounds of Independence Avenue in Kansas City, State Street in Chicago, Harlem’s rent parties. Fine Clothes to the Jew—published in 1927, the year Hughes resumed his education at Lincoln University, a college in Pennsylvania for black men—used the blues form much as James Weldon Johnson looked to spirituals for his poems in God’s Trombones (1927). In fact, Fine Clothes to the Jew includes “shouts” about Judgment Day and black women crooning in the amen corner, the prayer meeting being to Hughes like the fellowship of the pool room, which is why he was perplexed when a preacher once asked him not to read any more blues poems in his pulpit.
But he sho do treat me kind.
I’m black an’ ugly
But he sho do treat me kind.
Please don’t take this man o’mine.
(“Lament Over Love”)
Hughes kept the rhythm and simple diction of the blues, though he modified the blues pattern of one long line repeated followed by a third line to rhyme with the first two. Even the poems in Fine Clothes not strictly in the blues pattern share the blues mood—“Put on yo’ red silk stockings, / Black gal. / Go out an’ let de white boys / Look at yo’ legs.” Hughes defined the mood as one of despondency, “but when [the blues] are sung people laugh.”
The blues expressed for Hughes black culture’s heritage of warmth, stoicism, and incongruous humor, the “ironic laughter mixed with tears,” the “pain swallowed in a smile.” Respectable blacks disdained the blues as vulgar. Hughes cherished its down-home quality, but his contributions to the blues vocabulary are scrupulous more than anything else. Maybe he was too intent on the nobility of the form to get as low as the real thing gets. “Daddy, eagle-rock with me” is chaste compared to Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”: “He boiled my first cabbage, and he made it awful hot. / Then he put in the bacon and it overflowed the pot.” Then, too, the poems can be only approximations of the light-in-the-fish-joint atmosphere: reading a blues poem aloud is not the same as hearing the music.
The stories in the blues mattered more to Hughes than the untranslatable language. Ralph Ellison has defined the blues as “an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically,” but Hughes’s blues are less personal than social because he speaks through, for or about blacks in general (“When hard luck overtakes you / Nothin’ for you to do. / Gather up yo’ fine clothes / An sell ’em to de Jew”). None of his left-lonesome, broke-and-hungry, desperate-going-to-the-river, and jobs-are-hard-to-get blues is personal or intimate. Women who swear not to let another “yellow papa” get their last dime, poor boys looking for box cars to take them back South, men who carry their meanness and “licker” everywhere, blue-gummed women with low-down ways, folks who just want to leave their troubles outside in the snow—Hughes’s blues poems are slices of life framed by a great deal of emotional rhetoric. He was drawn to that aspect of the blues that functioned as affirmative speech, as ritual to ease misery. However, to the poet and scholar Sterling Brown:
It is a popular misconception that the Blues are merely songs that ease a woman’s longing for her rambling man. Of course, this pattern has been set, especially by certain priestesses of the Blues cult. Nevertheless, the Blues furnish examples of other concerns. As the lost-lover line may be dragged into a levee moan, so may an excellent bit of farm advice be found in a song about a long-lost mama. Blues will be found ranging from flood songs to graphic descriptions of pneumonia.3
Perhaps Hughes’s generalized concept of the blues is why his work in the idiom lacks the wit and invention of Sterling Brown’s ballads in Southern Road (1932), not to mention the assured handling of dialect. Claims to Hughes’s originality as a poet rest on his blues poems, but as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has pointed out,4 Hughes seemed content to imitate, whereas Brown explored and elaborated upon the blues tradition.
The themes of Hughes’s poetry and the formulas he employed underwent few changes until Harlem heated up in the Fifties and be-bop became the reigning cool. There are not many surprises in the blues poems of Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) and One-Way Ticket (1949), in the lyrics of Dear, Lovely Death (1931) or Fields of Wonder (1947), and in the great number of poems about the black condition, about lynching or the rent due, that unsuccessfully mix the avenue with “The Man with the Hoe.” Ever literal, the serious truth in Hughes’s poetry is given the plainest wrapper of general statement, as if the black point of view could not afford flight above fact without distorting reality. His poems about black life are really poems about coping with Jim Crow. The poet’s concentration is in his choice of who tells the black side of the segregation story, in his recognition that such voices also belong to the subject of poetry. But once Hughes introduces the speaker he steps back and leaves the story, not the speaker, to hold the stage.
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.
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.
Hughes went back to writing about black life from the uptown perspective. But he was obliged by his publishers to omit Du Bois from Famous American Negroes (1953) and Paul Robeson from Famous Negro Music Makers (1956), biographical essays for young readers. A poem he had written attacking the committee was not published until 1967, in the posthumous The Panther and the Lash. Hughes’s “skirmishes” with censor ship had become internal until the rise of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s vindicated as well as revived Hughes’s reputation as a truth-telling writer.
Hughes kept his militant self mostly for his poetry, but his fiction, like his work for the theater, “that hussy,” reflects the dilemma of what Rampersad calls Hughes’s racial message and his white publishers. 6 “When we cease to be exotic we do not sell,” Hughes said. There is no equivalent in his fiction to his ballads about brave blacks in the Lincoln Brigade or the propaganda of “Put one more S in the USA / and make it Soviet.” For Hughes fiction held commercial possibilities, and he once contemplated publishing a volume of short stories about whites under a pseudonym. However, his fiction has a similar underlying didactic purpose: to give information and moral instruction about blacks.
Looking back over his career, one sees Hughes’s determination to stick to the positive in the black folk legacy. It suffuses his nostalgic autobiographical novel, Not Without Laughter (1930). The young hero, Sandy, lives in a fortification of hope erected by his mother and grandmother. Hughes ignored the insecurity of his formative years to give a sweet picture of black childhood in which poor but happy relatives and neighbors are both intimations of the future, symbols of the limited choices blacks had in 1912. Though Hughes wrote the novel with Kansas in mind, its folksy speech helped by songs and stories he heard on a visit to the South, it takes place in a private world, in the memory of his yearnings as an isolated, precocious youth. Sandy’s restrained emotions provide the principal interest—the effects of segregation on his perceptions, how he learns to control his tears. A loosely constructed series of situations through which Hughes charts the development of a black consciousness, it displays ordinary black life passing Sandy’s front porch in a medley of totemic images.
Being black, the novel seems to say, is not incompatible with having a rich life of revivals, carnivals, love, and sneaking off to dances. Sandy’s grandmother, Aunt Hager, is religious and optimistic in spite of her bondage to the washtub. His mother, Anjee, accepts the necessity of her toil in a white kitchen. Sandy’s two aunts embody extremes: one is headed toward the moaning life of the good but fallen woman; the other lives in the unsatisfactory world of the black ashamed of her roots. The women are trapped, but Sandy’s father, Jimboy, is a wanderer able to make the days long and lazy, to bring to the music of his guitar the sense of freedom in knowing a lot and not wanting much. His waywardness is muted by Hughes’s approval of his need to merge with his surroundings. He is a natural prophet of Hughes’s insight that blacks can thrive in the teeth of Jim Crow. Nevertheless, Aunt Hager fears that Sandy’s dreams will be bound by his environment:
I want him to know all they is to know, so he’s can help this black race of our’n to come up and see de light and take they places in de world. I wants him to be a Fred Douglass leadin’ de people…an’ not followin’ in de tracks o’ his good-for-nothin’ pappy.
After Aunt Hager’s death, Sandy is confronted with the dangers of Chicago, but he is sustained by the values of the black side of his home town and the feeling of belonging that Hughes projected onto its various members.
The short stories in The Ways of White Folks (1934), like those in his later collection, Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952), deal with the barrier of color from Harlem to Hong Kong. The hidden motives of whites who want to befriend an unspoiled black, a lonely white woman who fights her attraction to a black man, a black woman who recalls without bitterness the white man who left her, the joke or seriousness of passing, the black youth who learns to respect the power of prayer, the unhappy mulatto—race relations are an uneven struggle, but the black can win through self-knowledge. The message to whites is that the black person waiting at your back door is more of a person than you are. The light, satirical stories are less contrived than those with dramatic themes. Similarly, Hughes’s characters and dialogue are more convincing when they are urban. His rural blacks are flat and his crackers remain abstract, white people whose “hind brains don’t work,” as Carson McCullers once explained them to him.
Hughes placed much importance on black culture’s laughter, which was “too deep for fun,” but very little of his work is humorous in the sense of the “desperately and grotesquely funny” of the tall tale. Hughes attempted to capture the humor of black urban culture through a character he introduced in his Chicago Defender column in 1943: Jesse B. Semple, his “simple-minded friend.” Simple, as he is known to his friends, is a racially conscious barfly philosopher, unlettered but wise in his own hep way. “I’ll bet there isn’t a white soldier living who ever got a medal from a colored soldier.” Boyd, the colleged, unrelaxed narrator of the series, gets Simple to sound off on a variety of issues about black life, from love of women and watermelon, and colored leaders who manage to hide from the blacks they lead, to how colored folks rate as much protection as the buffalo, how he’d like to have eggs that taste like pork chops, how he’d gladly pay for Jim Crow’s funeral were Jim Crow a man, and how rich gospel singers when they cry “I Cannot Bear My Burden Alone” really mean “Help me get my cross to my Cadillac.”
Hughes’s folk philosophers, apart from Simple, were usually women: Alberta K. Johnson, the “Madam” who sasses the phone company, the census taker, and the landlord in a 1943 sequence of poems; Sister Mary Bradley, the pious grandmother who comments on daily life in Harlem from her front window in the photo-essay The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955). Simple gave to Hughes a wider range, the man’s domain of the street corner, the bar, the bachelor’s furnished room, Third Floor Rear. The Simple columns became communal entertainment on the premise that blacks spoke more openly to one another than they did to whites. Hughes used a vernacular that included everything from the blues and newspaper headlines to the “Dozens” (word contests about “one’s female relatives,” as Simple puts it). But Simple is more a theatrical than an urban folk creation. With Boyd as the straight man and Simple delivering the punch lines, their exchanges are like vaudeville routines, except Hughes got rid of the buzzard’s roost. Blacks occupy the front rows of the audience and whites look on from the back.
Simple loves Harlem, the protection in being surrounded by blacks, the certainty that if the buildings don’t belong to him, at least the sidewalks do. Hughes put himself into both Simple and Boyd. “It is just myself talking to me. Or else me talking to myself.” Instead of Hughes speaking for blacks he created a black persona who stood not only for the black point of view but could also address his own obsessions:
Not only am I half dead right now from pneumonia, but everything else has happened to me! I’ve been cut, shot, stabbed, run over, hit by a car, and tromped by a horse. I have also been robbed, fooled, deceived, two-timed, double-crossed, dealt seconds, and mighty near blackmailed—but I’m still here!… I have been fired, laid off, and last week given an indefinite vacation, also Jim Crowed, segregated, barred out, insulted, eliminated, called black, yellow, and red, locked in, locked out, locked up, and also left holding the bag. I have been caught in the rain, caught in raids, caught short with the rent, and caught with another man’s wife. In my time I have been caught—but I am still here!… I have been underfed, underpaid, undernourished, and everything but undertaken.
For twenty years Simple held forth about whites, white taxes, Jim Crow, his former wife, his fast cousin, his loud “after-hours” girlfriend, his mean landlady, and his patient, daytime girlfriend. Simple not only criticized white society (except for Mrs. Roosevelt), he was outspoken about bad manners or the use of profanity, points on which he believed blacks could stand improvement. Hughes collected his Simple columns in books,7 made a comedy and a musical based on Simple, and the character’s popularity helped Hughes to survive the McCarthy era and to cheer on the freedom movement of the late 1950s. Hughes retired Simple from Paddy’s Bar, and had him happily married to the suburbs in 1963. By then Simple was thought of as out of date, condescending, or even schmaltzy.
I said, “Aunt Lucy, you ain’t gonna whip me no more—I’s a man.”… But it wasn’t the whipping that taught me what I needed to know. It was because I cried—and cried. When peoples care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul!
A man who gets hurt working ought to show the scars, blacks used to say, and, though he was a revered figure, toward the end of his life Hughes worried that his career had been eclipsed by the fame of Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, as if the question of who was the leading black writer were a matter of apostolic succession or Negro Firsterism. Hughes never had the unqualified best seller or hit he longed for, and he sometimes experienced the sense of having been robbed that the person who plays losing numbers feels toward the winner. Perhaps from envy he blamed Wright for starting the trend that depicted blacks as “crazed monsters” and charged that Baldwin wrote “art” books about folks who weren’t “art” folks. He also disliked what he saw as the indulgent “bloody kicks” of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, though he once said that his “ugly poems” protested against the ugliness they pictured and that he had a right to portray any side of Negro life that he wished.
It turns out that there weren’t too many sides to Hughes’s vision of Negro life, and this may help to explain why he recycled plots and characters through his poems, stories, and plays. He was not in favor of black literature showing the black neighborhood as a brutal ghetto, a place where blacks were capable of violence toward other blacks and themselves, because it was to him a literature that devalued his creed of triumph through the willingness to struggle. In his 1926 manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes proclaimed that black writers of his generation were free to express their “individual darkskinned selves without fear or shame,” the intention of the short-lived arts journal Fire!!, which he founded with Zora Neale Hurston and others of the Harlem “Niggerati.” But in 1965 he was calling for “objective, well-rounded” treatments of the Negro image, much like the black critics of his youth whom he had ridiculed for wanting him to assist the black race in putting its best foot forward. Hughes had a fixed idea of what black people were, one that did not venture beyond the majesty of keeping on.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s the trend to define a “Black Aesthetic” made it fashionable to think of Hughes as neglected by white critics because he adhered to the populist side of modernism. Hughes’s ambitious long poems, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) and Ask Your Mama (1961), were declared masterpieces of be-bop style, the hep talk of the jam session, and his blues poems were rediscovered as revelations of the authentic voice of the black people. An idea then prevalent was that black music was subversive, a righteous alternative to the values of mainstream culture. Black critics insisted that Hughes had grasped the profundity of black life down through the years in his respect for the blues and jazz, that he demonstrated the complexities of the black community in his changes of rhythm, and that he had invented original black poetic forms, even though Ask Your Mama owes its structure to Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.” African poets like Senghor regarded Hughes as one of the guiding lights of negritude. But to say that Hughes’s poetry can be understood only through an aesthetic of soul or a sociology of music is another kind of obscurantism. In any event, the debate over black idiom versus Western poetics ended with Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” in which he renders patois in an ancient Anglo-Saxon meter.
A product of the Negro Awakening, Hughes believed that what he was able to say about blacks had to be said again and again. After all, black life seemed to stay the same the more it changed. A generation of blacks took pride in Hughes’s fame, another generation took comfort that Simple’s bursts of opinions were also theirs, and then yet another generation grew up reciting “What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” As one looks back on Hughes’s endurance and singleness of purpose, perhaps it is enough to concede that he wrote not so much for literature as for his audience, and in the spirit of the widow’s mite.
February 16, 1989
See The Langston Hughes Reader: The Selected Writings of Langston Hughes (George Braziller, 1958) and The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Vintage, 1974). ↩
Morrow, 1983. ↩
The Negro Caravan, 1948. ↩
Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (Oxford University Press, 1987). ↩
Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest, edited by Faith Berry (Morrow, 1973). ↩
See Five Plays by Langston Hughes, edited by Webster Smalley (Indiana University Press, 1963) and Langston Hughes–Arna Bontemps: Letters (Little, Brown, 1979). ↩
Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Takes A Wife (1953), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965), and The Best of Simple (Hill and Wang, 1961). ↩