Langston Hughes became one of this blogger's favorite poets with
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed
I, too, am America.
Langston Hughes, “I, Too” from Collected Poems (1994)
The poetry of national conscience is the gift of Langston Hughes. If this is (fair & balanced) delineation of "The American Dilemma," so be it.
[x New Yorker]
By Hilton Als
Tag Cloud of the following piece of writing
By the time the British artist Isaac Julien’s iconic short essay-film “Looking for Langston” was released, in 1989, Julien’s ostensible subject, the enigmatic poet and race man Langston Hughes, had been dead for twenty-two years, but the search for his “real” story was still ongoing. There was a sense—particularly among gay men of color, like Julien, who had so few “out” ancestors and wanted to claim the prolific, uneven, but significant writer as one of their own—that some essential things about Hughes had been obscured or disfigured in his work and his memoirs. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, and transplanted to New York City as a strikingly handsome nineteen-year-old, Hughes became, with the publication of his first book of poems, The Weary Blues (1926), a prominent New Negro: modern, pluralistic in his beliefs, and a member of what the folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston called “the niggerati,” a loosely formed alliance of black writers and intellectuals that included Hurston, the author and diplomat James Weldon Johnson, the openly gay poet and artist Richard Bruce Nugent, and the novelists Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Wallace Thurman (whose 1929 novel about color fixation among blacks, The Blacker the Berry, conveys some of the energy of the time).
In a 1926 essay for The Nation, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes described the group, which came together during the Harlem Renaissance, when hanging out uptown was considered a lesson in cool:
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
And yet, in his personal life, Hughes did not stand on top of the mountain, proclaiming who he was or what he thought. One of the architects of black political correctness, he saw as threatening any attempt to expose black difference or weakness in front of a white audience. In his approach to the work of other black artists, in particular, he was excessively inclusive, enthusiastic to the point of self-effacement, as if black creativity were a great wave that would wash away the psychic scars of discrimination. Hughes was uncomfortable when younger black writers, such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (whom Hughes mentored from the day after he arrived in Harlem, in 1936, until it was no longer convenient for Ellison to be associated with the less careful craftsman), criticized other black writers. Hughes’s reluctance to reveal the cracks in the black world—which is to say, his own world—curtailed not only what he was able to achieve as an artist but what he was able to express as a man.
Instead of coming to grips with himself and his potential, he developed what he considered to be a palatable or marketable public persona. There he is, smiling, humble, industrious, and hidden, in Arnold Rampersad’s two-volume biography, The Life of Langston Hughes (1986 and 1988), not to mention in such important recent works about the period as Carla Kaplan’s Miss Anne in Harlem and Farah Jasmine Griffin’s Harlem Nocturne (both 2013). Even in much of his own correspondence—in the recently published The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, edited by Rampersad and David Roessel, with Christa Fratantoro—one senses that Hughes is performing a version of himself that he feels is socially acceptable. (While The Selected Letters is a good place to start finding out about Hughes and his world, one sees more of his naughtiness and sense of play in some of the narrower collections, including Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, which was edited with verve and insight by Emily Bernard.) The Hughes persona also appears in his most celebrated verses, which marry down-home Southern locutions with urban rhythms. From The Weary Blues:
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody. . . .
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Writing about Hughes’s Selected Poems in the Times in 1959, Baldwin—who chastised his elder for reducing blackness to a kind of pleasant Negro simplicity—began with a bang:
Every time I read Langston Hughes I am amazed all over again by his genuine gifts—and depressed that he has done so little with them. . . . Hughes, in his sermons, blues and prayers, has working for him the power and the beat of Negro speech and Negro music. Negro speech is vivid largely because it is private. It is a kind of emotional shorthand—or sleight of hand—by means of which Negroes express not only their relationship to each other but their judgment of the white world. . . . Hughes knows the bitter truth behind these hieroglyphics: what they are designed to protect, what they are designed to convey. But he has not forced them into the realm of art, where their meaning would become clear and overwhelming.
Possibly, Baldwin—the author of the landmark gay love story Giovanni’s Room—was upset less by Hughes’s failures as a poet than by his refusal to reveal the truth behind his own hieroglyphics: his sexuality, which appears only in glimpses in his work. (And in the work of others, including Richard Bruce Nugent’s 1926 story “Smoke, Lilies, and Jade,” which Hughes published in Fire!!, a literary magazine that Wallace Thurman edited, and in which a young man walking in Harlem bumps into “Langston,” who’s in the company of a striking boy.) Thurman, expressing his frustration at how little he knew about Hughes’s private self, wrote to him once, “You are in the final analysis the most consarned and diabolical creature, to say nothing of being either the most egregiously simple or excessively complex person I know.” Even Rampersad’s biography, which is as rich a study of a life as one could wish for, was criticized by gay readers for its emphatic I-don’t-know-anything-specific-about-his-romantic-life pronouncements. In Rampersad’s work, Hughes emerges as a constantly striving, almost asexual entity—which is pretty much the image that Hughes himself put forth.
Reading Hughes’s work, one is reminded of these lines by the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of Hughes’s early enthusiasms:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
That mask was what kept Hughes from including such works as “Café: 3 A.M.” in his “Selected Poems,” which he edited:
Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
And where was Langston? His tight-lippedness when it came to his own “degenerate” behavior kept him from identifying such people as “F.S.,” the dedicatee of another poem (who may have been Ferdinand Smith, a Jamaican merchant seaman Hughes met in Harlem) that appeared in The Weary Blues:
I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There is nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
Soft as it began—
I loved my friend.
Hughes’s genial, generous, and guarded persona was self-protective, certainly. It’s important to remember that he came of age in an era during which gay men—and blacks—were physically and mentally abused for being what they were. (He was self-preserving in other areas of his life as well. To protect his career, he testified at the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings, which cost him his friendships with W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson.) Hughes’s mask was likely also a bulwark against his personal history, which he rarely discussed, even in his elusive autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956), one of the most apt titles ever penned by Hughes: his memoir is littered with short sojourns and partings, a pattern he learned in a home where the laughter was often derisive and love was a form of humiliation.
Hughes’s mother, the impulsive and vibrant Carrie Langston, was born in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1873, of African, Native American, and French ancestry. Her father, Charles Langston, an enterprising farmer and grocer, was also a fierce abolitionist, whose youngest brother, John Mercer Langston, became a prominent figure in nineteenth-century black America—a professor of law, a dean, and then the acting president of Howard University. As a girl, Carrie Langston was known as “the Belle of Black Lawrence.” Hungry for attention, she aspired to a career on the stage, but her dreams were stymied by prejudice and by the limits of a nineteenth-century woman’s life. With few real options open to her, she completed a course in elementary-school education, and in 1898, already in love with travel, moved to Guthrie, in the Oklahoma Territory, some ten miles from Langston, a town named for her famous uncle. There the light-skinned Carrie met and married James Nathaniel Hughes, a handsome, hardworking man of color, with African, Native American, French, and Jewish blood. (His grandfathers were both slave traders.) But there was a crucial difference between the newlyweds: whereas Carrie had been brought up to be proud of her race, the color-struck James despised blackness, which he equated with poverty and powerlessness.
In 1899, the young, ambitious couple moved to Joplin, where Carrie gave birth to Langston in 1902. (Their first child, a boy, born in 1900, died in infancy.) A year later, when James secured a position in Mexico City, where he felt that he stood a better chance of success, Carrie dropped Langston off at her mother’s, and followed him south. The couple bickered, reconciled, parted, sometimes with Langston in tow, often not; for the most part, the boy was reared by his judicious but loving grandmother, Mary. By 1907, they had separated permanently.
There’s nothing like family to remind you of life’s essential loneliness. As a boy, Hughes absorbed his mother’s bitterness about her marriage and her thwarted career, as well as his father’s anxiety and rancor over racism in America and what he presumed to be its cause: blacks themselves. (Hughes recalled a train journey through Arkansas, during which his father, seeing some blacks at work in a cotton field, sneered, “Look at the niggers.”) Carrie never hesitated to tell her son that he resembled his father—“that devil”—and that he was as “evil as Jim Hughes.” His grandmother, angry about segregation—as a black person, she couldn’t join the church of her choice—forbade her grandson to go out after school: Why risk degradation in their sty?
Hughes grew up in an atmosphere of hatred and small-mindedness. While he was in elementary school, a white teacher warned one of Hughes’s white classmates against eating licorice, for fear that he would end up looking like Langston. A bright, genial boy, Hughes also suffered for his talents. From his poem “Genius Child”:
Nobody loves a genius child.
Can you love an eagle,
Tame or wild?
Can you love an eagle,
Wild or tame?
Can you love a monster
Of frightening name?
Nobody loves a genius child.
Kill him—and let his soul run wild.
Still, there was solace. There were books by W. E. B. Du Bois, and the formality and strange wisdom of the Bible. (Hughes read widely and deeply in the black and white American canons. And, throughout his career, he excitedly read the writers of color who were published in Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, including René Maran, Graziella Garbalosa, and Richard Rive.) There was black pride, too. In 1910, Mary and her grandson went to Osawatomie, Kansas, where former President Theodore Roosevelt honored her first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, who had died during the 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.
Mary herself died in 1915, and the thirteen-year-old Hughes soon left Kansas for Lincoln, Illinois, where his mother now lived with her second husband, Homer Clark, a sometime “chef cook,” and his son. In Lincoln, a teacher asked Hughes’s eighth-grade class to appoint a class poet who understood rhythm. Hughes’s fellow-students unanimously nominated Hughes, the only black boy in the class. Hughes wrote his first poem for the class graduation, and was so impressed by the applause he received that he wondered whether he had found his vocation. As Homer sought better career opportunities that never seemed to materialize, Hughes followed his mother and her new family to Cleveland, where he began contributing poems and stories to his high-school magazine. When his mother and his stepfather moved on again, to Chicago, Hughes stayed behind to finish high school, which he did in 1920. Although he was pretty much on his own from then on, his parents exercised a pull over him for as long as they lived. (My Dear Boy: Carrie Hughes’s Letters to Langston Hughes, 1926-1938, edited by Carmaletta M. Williams and John Edgar Tidwell, is valuable testimony to Carrie’s never-ending attempts to manipulate her son.)
Open to Hughes was the great wide world, the adventure of travel, and those writers—Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman—who not only freed the young writer from traditional literary forms but showed him that he could sing his America, too. In 1921, he moved to New York to study at Columbia University, but what he fell in love with was the “Negro city”: Harlem. (He eventually dropped out of Columbia, and graduated from Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, in 1929.) Before coming to New York, he had spent more than a year in patriarchal purgatory in Mexico; now he was “hungry” to be with his people. Exiting the subway at 135th Street, he said, “I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.”
Harlem in the twenties offered up a cultural richness that made everything seem possible. Jervis Anderson, writing in this magazine in 1981, noted, “Harlem has never been more high-spirited and engaging than it was during the nineteen-twenties. Blacks from all over America and the Caribbean were pouring in, reviving the migration that had abated toward the end of the war—word having reached them about the ‘city,’ in the heart of Manhattan, that blacks were making their own.” The headquarters for Du Bois’s magazine Crisis, to which Hughes had been contributing from Mexico, was there; so was Messenger, co-edited by the activist A. Philip Randolph. Soon Hughes found a new source of the kind of support that his grandmother had given him as a boy: a wealthy white woman named Charlotte Osgood Mason, who provided Hughes and other black artists, including Hurston, with financial backing, as long as they promoted blackness. (Despite the awkwardness of the arrangement, Hughes remained loyal to Mason—“I want to be your spirit child forever,” he wrote to her—and when he ceased to be a favorite, in 1930, he was devastated. That pain shows in his forced 1933 short story “Slave on the Block,” which he included in his passionate but ill-considered collection The Ways of White Folks, the following year.)
The charming Hughes also managed to melt the heart of the glacial Du Bois, who had lost a son, and counted Jessie Fauset, an editor at Crisis, and the poet Countee Cullen as champions of a sort. In 1923, Cullen introduced Hughes to Alain Locke, a gay Harvard-educated thinker, who published the influential anthology The New Negro in 1925. As one can intuit from The Selected Letters, the two embarked on a kind of cat-and-mouse game: Hughes needed Locke’s patronage, and, sensing the older man’s attraction to him, kept him at arm’s length to increase the mystery. Soon Hughes was a citizen of a bright black world that included Paul Robeson, who, in 1924, would star downtown in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Emperor Jones.” Putting his ear to the concrete, he heard poems like “Aesthete in Harlem,” which combined, within a short, intense form, the sound of the laughing and crying tom-tom he described in his 1926 Nation essay:
That in this nigger place
I should meet life face to face;
When, for years, I had been seeking
Life in places gentler speaking—
Before I came to this vile street
And found Life—stepping on my feet!
The poem, like many of Hughes’s early lyrics, is both interesting and uninspiring. We admire him for the pre-spoken-word cadences and the energy of the enterprise, but without ever knowing who his “I” is we have no anchor in the poem. The ungrounded first-person voice allows Hughes to be humanity, but not a specific human.
Once the Depression put an end to all the champagne and sexy miscegenation of the Harlem Renaissance, the “niggerati” scattered to other gigs, some in other countries. Hughes travelled in Russia during the thirties, finding in Communism, at least for a time, the political hope that was missing in his own country, but he always returned to Harlem, even as the neighborhood suffered through race riots and the drug and civic wars of the fifties and sixties. It was his home until he died, in 1967—his ashes are now entombed in the lobby of the Langston Hughes Auditorium at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem—visible evidence of all that Hughes’s father despised and he embraced, in what may very well have been the most unresolvable relationship of his life.
In 1961, twenty-seven years after James Hughes died, his son wrote a brief, intense tale called “Blessed Assurance.” Published posthumously, it begins:
Unfortunately (and to John’s distrust of God) it seemed his son was turning out to be a queer. He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Roll in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear.
When the boy sings a solo in the church choir and his voice soars, a male organist faints, and the boy’s father pleads for him to shut up. But the song goes on. What is natural to John’s son is the music, a world of sound which he can both hide behind and expose himself through.
In the final years of his life, Hughes did seem to see the tide turning. His last, and best, collection of poems, “The Panther and the Lash” (1967), reflects, with a haiku-like flatness and lift, a Vietnam-era world that was changing and needed to change. His poem “Corner Meeting”:
Ladder, flag, and amplifier
now are what the soapbox used to be.
The speaker catches fire,
Looking at listeners’ faces.
His words jump down
Here Hughes writes with the force of a good journalist; he is no longer an abstract Negro everyman but a reporter weighing in on the heat and confusion of the time, without too much self-conscious hipster jive.
The novelist Paule Marshall recalls, in her 2009 memoir, Triangular Road, a 1965 government-sponsored tour of Europe on which she accompanied Hughes. It was during the heady days of the civil-rights movement. In Paris, a city that Hughes loved—“There you can be whatever you want to be. Totally yourself,” he said—Marshall noticed that when the subject of the movement came up Hughes let others do the talking. He knew what his own struggles had been, and he knew that the present struggle would lead to if not a different day then a different kind of day, one in which erasing lines from one’s own story might make less sense than just saying them. Ω
[Hilton Als, staff writer and drama critic at The New Yorker. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Writing in 2000 and the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 2002-03. Als' also is the author of The Women (1996) and White Girls (2013). Als attended Columbia University and has taught at Yale University, Wesleyan University, and Smith College.]
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