In Langston Hughes’s “Let America Be America Again,” a poem published in 1936, a narrator speaks for those who struggle—the poor white, the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, the red man driven from the land, the immigrant clutching hope—and he offers the consolation, the defiance, of the young man, the farmer, the worker, united in demanding that America become “the dream the dreamers dreamed,” “the land that never has been yet.” Hughes addressed rallies of thousands in the Midwest and predicted that because the Depression had been so traumatic, mainstream America would go to the left politically. He got it wrong and spent the next two decades coping with the fallout, professionally, of having been sympathetic to communism.
Hughes was a panelist alongside Richard Wright at the National Negro Congress in Chicago in 1936, but two years later in “Blueprint for Negro Writing,” Wright dismissed the Harlem Renaissance writers as part of the black literary tradition of prim ambassadors who “entered the Court of American Public Opinion dressed in the knee-pants of servility.” Hughes was so identified with the Negro Awakening of the 1920s that he seemed to Wright to belong to an older generation, though there were only six years between them. Wright got his start publishing in leftist magazines and although he toed the Communist line of working-class solidarity that conquered race difference, and could envision in his early poetry black hands raised in fists together with those of white workers, the spirit of his revolt had very little of Hughes’s Popular Front uplift. His feelings were much more violent.
In “Between the World and Me,” a poem that appeared in Partisan Review in 1935, Wright’s narrator imagines the scene of a lynching:
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing,
Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms.
And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me….
There was a design of white bones slumbering forgottenly upon a cushion of ashes.
There was a charred stump of a sapling pointing a blunt finger accusingly at the sky.
Wright’s “I” recalls that the passive scene has woken up. “And a thousand faces swirled around me, clamoring that my life be burned.” “They” had him; his wet body slipped and rolled in their hands as they bound him to the sapling and poured hot tar:
Then my blood was cooled mercifully, cooled by a baptism of gasoline.
And in a blaze of red I leapt to the sky as pain rose like water, boiling my limbs.
The poem’s last line shifts to the present tense. The speaker is now dry bones, his face “a stony skull staring in yellow surprise at the sun.”
Wright was not the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.