Wondering about the life of Langston Hughes
The Jangling of Dreams
Langston Hughes is a black American poet.
Langston Hughes is
“an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist”
“one of the most important writers and thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance”
“one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry”
In the blank spaces of a book, in the breaks of lines, this is Langston Hughes’s quest: to find a self within America, within color, within poetics, within personhood.
“I landed one cold winter afternoon in New York, broke and down on my luck. That night I went to Harlem. Luckily, my poetry caught on” — Langston Hughes (Guillén and Mullen 57).
How to define the self? Moreover, how to discover the self? Langston Hughes is a man stretched across the world. In 1902, he is born in Joplin, Missouri. In 1915, he lives in Lincoln, Illinois. He attends high school in Cleveland, Ohio; he spends a year in Mexico with his father and begins his college education in New York at Columbia University; he sets sail for Africa and Europe (“Langston Hughes,” Poets.org). Langston Hughes is a man scattered in the world. From which Langston does his poetry speak?
When defining the self, is it not natural to wonder from where one comes? And is this not a fundamental American question?
America: the amalgamation of the world’s blood.
When Langston Hughes first sees the ship on the Hudson (Hughes, The Weary Blues 10), perhaps there is no snow. For New York City’s winter veil is often gray, not white. The choppy river gnaws at the docks. It bounces the ship, keeping its old bones awake, for spring is bound soon to breathe upon the horizon. The ship creaking, the young poet breathing, both wait to shake the hand of the world.
Dakar, Nigeria, Luanda. Does something of Hughes lie here? He says, “Oh the sun in Dakar! Oh the little black girls of Burutu! Oh, the blue, blue bay of Loanda...and George, the Kentucky colored boy, dancing and singing the Blues on the after-deck under the stars” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 10). But what is that something (thing, in all its nebulousness, so applicable in this event)? Hughes is elated (enlightened?): “Calabar, the city lost in a forest; the long, shining days at sea, the masts rocking against the stars at night” (Hughes, The Weary Blues 10). Heritage seems to be buried somewhere in the depths of these reflections (revelations?), but Hughes’s inheritance — the passing of life from parent to child — belongs in America. Hughes decides here that he wants to speak for black people (Guillén and Mullen 56). What of Hughes lies here:
flecks of skin, the breath of the sun, sea’s water, a humming mind.
When we place someone into the folds of history, do we not make presumptions about where that person’s body is, what space it occupies, where it moves? And there is a power in such placement, a power to decide how a person’s physical existence is remembered and historicized. Langston Hughes, at the time of the Harlem Renaissance, is not living in Harlem. He is attending Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (Hughes, The Big 219), visiting New York on the weekends (Hughes, The Big 256). “The Weary Blues,” which would become the namesake of his first poetry collection, is written on a boat on the Hudson River (Hughes, The Big 92). It is winter, the winter right before Hughes is to board the ship to Africa, before he is to travel to Paris and Genoa, far before he is to finally enter Lincoln University and is to see the Harlem that is said to be in renaissance.
“Harlem is undoubtedly one of his great loves; the sea is another”
— Jessie Fauset in Crisis magazine’s review of The Weary Blues, March 1926
What is there to say about Langston Hughes and Mexico? It is the country that Langston’s father has decided to call his own, where James N. Hughes has grown rich from the practice of law, from buying property, from managing an electric company (Hughes, The Big 39-40). Langston’s father has a life he could not have built in the United States.
“My father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes and remained in the United States.” — Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (40).
Yet, Mexico is more than James Hughes. It is Langston’s first experiences abroad. It is a place that has just been through revolution. What can it mean to Langston, to see the poverty of the native people of this country against the wealth of his own father who would have likely been poor too in the United States? And what can it mean to Hughes’s art, to hear Spanish, to drink it, to learn it? Hughes will not only learn to speak Spanish but will even, on his second visit, teach English in Spanish schools (Hughes, The Big 66).
The first time Langston goes to visit his father in Mexico is in the summer of 1919. He has one year of high school left to complete (Hughes, The Big 35). But what is to characterize this summer most is Langston’s sadness, which goes like this: rides through the towns around Toluca, days his father would travel in the countryside leaving him in the blue-white house, nights in a movie theatre cold as an icebox, the jumble of numbers on the pages of the bookkeeping problems his father urged him to do but which he could not unscramble (43-45)
“One day, when there was no one in the house but me, I put the pistol to my head and held it there, loaded, a long time, and wondered if I would be any happier if I were to pull the trigger” (Hughes, The Big 47).
Yet Langston returns to Mexico the next summer (Hughes, The Big 56), this time to discuss with his father his plans for college. James wants his son to go to school in Europe and then, to come back to Mexico to take over his businesses. But Langston thinks he might be a writer (62), the scraps of poems beginning to fit themselves together as he writes on the train (55).
Langston Hughes never wed, as far as we know. There is no mention of any lasting relationship in his lifetime (Rampersad xxi). We have wed him to poetry, the beat of jazz playing the procession, the smoky blues filling the room. It is a wedding conducted by many of Hughes’s critics, Margaret Larkin branding him the “proletarian poet” (Mullen 8), Carl Van Vechten calling him the “Negro Poet Laureate” (Mullen 71). Yet it is a wedding conducted again and again, postmortem. Today, we call him the poet of the Harlem Renaissance. But as with many things postmortem, this identification is rooted in memory. We remember Langston Hughes: poet. But what is it that we have forgotten?
Langston Hughes is a journalist. How could he not be? His twenties encompassed by both the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Depression, his thirties spent in the eve of World War II. And after, the last of his life spent in the rising social movements of the Sixties. In fact, some of Hughes’s earliest works of journalism are written while he is abroad during the 1930s, in Russia, Japan, China, Spain. Perhaps it should occur to us that Langston Hughes does not just belong to American Literary History. He belongs to the world stage.
Let us begin this process: the uniting of the poet-individual with history. Let us not hesitate. Let us begin with everything at once. The USSR. Langston Hughes, Communism, poetics, comrades, poverty, progress? What have we gotten ourselves into! One day Harlem, another Moscow. How fortunate that everywhere he went, Hughes brought along pencil and paper. Hughes: “a person who keeps a journal” (“Journalist”) — journalist — turning over his phrases city to city. He writes, just as
any writer must, and what he records is also a document of history. The USSR is big and new. Moscow is the capital, but the Republics stretch far into desert towns, farther than the tracks of a railroad can reach. Langston travels to Ashkhabad, Merv, Bokhara, Tashkent (Hughes, I Wonder 102-139). Hughes is more than a wayward journalist. After his travels, his notes and memories will become newspaper articles; short stories; poems; his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander.
His writings are void of austerity, void of all the objectivity that journalism often seeks. It is a type of journalism that has a conscious narrator, a narrator willing to use the I, to voice what he deep in his flesh believes to be true. This is the journalism of subjectiveness, a journalism that unwraps the individual and world at once.
“Hughes, it seems, did more wandering than wondering” — Saunders Redding on I Wonder as I Wander, The New York Herald Tribune (Mullen 18-19)
In the USSR, Hughes takes interest in the changing conditions for those of Asiatic descent. Historically discriminated against, these are the people finding new freedom under the Communist government. Some are coming into the cities. But the cities abound with political prisoners. “The native of Tashkent, about my own shade of brown, once had to sit in a colored section too...I asked Kurbanov about it...How had this change been brought about in so short a time?... He said, ‘Those who don’t like it are almost all in jail—or dead’” (Hughes, I Wonder 172).
Let me briefly say that Langston Hughes is a terrible packer.
Artwork by Susan Xiao
(Hughes, I Wonder 65, 108, 135, & 137)
If Langston Hughes aims to represent the lives of black Americans by fusing their collective experiences with his own (“Langston Hughes,” Poets.org), is this then his identity, somehow simultaneously the self but also the greater self that exists within the collective life of a people? And how to represent a people in a country where racial views, tensions, and presumptions change by the decade?
Think upon America.
America: the amalgamation of the world’s blood.
And yet, history has a shadow long as the rolling of the hills, wide as the fields that bare their produce to the waning sun.
America: bloodied; amalgamation of free and unjust
How to write America, its history so often unspoken but not to be forgotten.
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
To use language is to be of society. For, language is the tool of interaction and communication. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, even inner speech “is completely dialogic, totally saturated with the evaluations of the possible listener or audience, even if the speaker has no idea whatever of this listener” (Bakhtin 118). And to be of America is to be of the public eye. Perhaps, Langston Hughes sits to write a poem. The room is still and empty. Sunlight makes no sound as it traverses the windowpane. But on the streets, there is a tide of voices, rushing above and under each other, calling cross the shores of sidewalk. In which milieu does a poem live?
Hughes wrote no further autobiographies after I Wonder as I Wander. In fact, according to Edward Mullen’s Critical Essays on Langston Hughes, a collection of reviews of the writer’s works, “Faith Berry’s Langston Hughes Before and Beyond Harlem (Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1983) is the most complete biography to date. Although it is not a complete study, since it traces Hughes’ career only up to his permanent move to Harlem in the 1940s…” (4). Hughes lives until May 22, 1967 (“Langston Hughes, Writer,” par. 1). Finding his life in these 27 years in between is like trying to weave a canvas.
In 1926, Hughes publishes The Weary Blues. The public adores it. In 1927, he publishes Fine Clothes to the Jew. It is criticized for focusing heavily on the poor black in America (“Langston Hughes: a Biography”). How to live in the public, to be the public? Discord rests in what the public desires and what the public is. When Hughes publishes Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951, the civil rights movement is soon to surface. What is it that the public wants?
Langston Hughes on the Challenge of Earning a Living as Black Writer
“16 volumes of poetry, two novels, three short story collections, 20 plays, novels, essays, historical works, musical shows” (“Langston Hughes: a Biography”). But who is Langston Hughes?
Who is America?
“My greatest ambition is to be the poet of the Blacks. The Black poet. Do you understand?”
— Langston Hughes
(Guillén and Mullen 56).
Bakhtin, M. M. “Literary Stylistics.” Bakhtin School Papers. Oxford: Oxon, 1989. 114-129. Print.
Emanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967. Print.
Guillén, Nicolás, and Edward J. Mullen. “Conversation with Langston Hughes (1929).” Afro-Hispanic Review 9.1/3 (1990): 56–57. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Hughes, Langston. The Weary Blues. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945. Print.
Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander. 2nd ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Print.
Hughes, Langston, and Christopher C. Santis. Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942-62. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1995. Print.
“Journalist.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes.” America’s Story from America’s Library. Library of Congress. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes.” PoemHunter.com. PoemHunter. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes.” Poets.org. Academy of American Poets. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes, Writer, 65, Dead.” On This Day. The New York Times Company, 23 May 1967. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“Langston Hughes: A Biography.” Cora Unashamed. PBS. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
Langston, Hughes. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. 19th ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Print.
Mullen, Edward J. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1986. Print.
Rampersad, Arnold. “Introduction.” I Wonder as I Wander. 2nd ed. New York: Hill and Wang, 1993. Xi-xxii. Print.
“Self.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Web. 18 Dec. 2015.
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes. From Langston Hughes in Lawren. “KAW River Bridge.” SoundCloud.
“Langston Hughes on the Challenge of Earning a Living as Black Writer (1957).” From WNYCRadio. SoundCloud.
World map image made from map found at Stockvault.net
Victrola and Typewriter by Susan Xiao
Weaving picture made in Gimp