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A Question of Vision

ISSUE:  Spring 1984

Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem.
By Faith Berry. Lawrence Hill. $19.95 cloth, $12.95 paper.

Langston Hughes, who died in 1967, is remembered as one of the great black American writers. His name is identified with the Harlem Renaissance, one of the briefest and yet most prolific flowerings of black writing, and with the character of Jesse B. Semple, a folksy Negro Everyman. Personally, Hughes himself was a man of great discretion overlaid with sophisticated charm. He combined a public silence about his personal life with the practiced volubility of a polished performer. Lyrical yet incisive, his writing caught the pathos of racial humiliation, the indignity of racial injustice, and the warmth and wit of black culture.

During his career, which spanned 45 years, Hughes wrote on subjects other than race, but these works were not what audiences expected, or what Hughes was remembered for. Faith Berry, in her new biography, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, substantiates what her earlier anthology, Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writing by Langston Hughes (1973) attests: first and foremost, Hughes was a radical. Hughes wrote in support of left-wing causes and Socialist and Communist governments throughout his career, though, until 1973, when Berry published her anthology, his social-protest writing remained uncollected.

In “White Man,” a poem published in The New Masses on Dec.15, 1936, Hughes linked capitalism and white exploitation:

I hear your name ain’t really White Man.
I hear it’s something
Marx wrote down
Fifty years ago—
That rich people don’t like to read.
Is that true, White Man?
Is your name in a book
called The Communist Manifesto?
Is your name spelled
Are you always a White Man?

Faith Berry’s meticulously detailed biography does much to dispel the image of Hughes as “the merry Bard of Harlem.” In fact, he was a radical who wished to reform white, capitalist society but not to join it. The radical writing, written simultaneously with the racial commentary his audience expected, was published in obscure, left-wing magazines, while his other work appeared in Poetry, The New Republic, and Esquire. His poems attacking racism and hypocrisy view prejudice as a symptom of a sick society, not the cause. His scope was international, interracial, and leftist.

Yet Hughes deliberately refrained from anthologizing much of the writing that expressed his political beliefs. His travel essays, enthusiastically praising communism in Russia and China, were published in leftist journals but kept out of I Wonder as I Wander (1956), an autobiographical travel volume published by Alfred A. Knopf. Although Hughes vividly and carefully describes his trips through Latin America, Cuba, Japan, China, Russia, and Spain, he omits including any political appraisal of what he saw. Though Hughes visited many of these countries as an important radical writer, I Wonder as 1 Wander depicts him as a happy-go-lucky tourist.

Berry suggests that this decision was a compromise between Hughes’ deeply felt political beliefs and his sensitivity to his audience. Hughes relied on lecture tours, poetry readings, and public appearances for most of his income, and he protected his reputation as a Negro spokesman. He was always sensitive to possible repercussions from his political beliefs, and he was always broke. Like the rabbit chasing the carrot, Hughes pursued every opportunity that might bring in cash; it seems ironic that he did not become rich.

Certainly there were more unfulfilled expectations than there were large checks. Mulatto, his play which ran on Broadway, brought in little money because of royalty disputes; his readings generated more income than the sale of articles and books. After Hughes realized his value as a performer, he organized theatricals himself, but none were the big hits he might have wished for. Don’t You Want to Be Free, a show of his work, which introduced James Earl Jones, Sr. to audiences, was the longest running play produced in Harlem during Hughes’ lifetime, but it made little money.

And yet one suspects that Hughes’ editing of his nonracial work was not merely out of pragmatic concern; it was a reflection, also, of his huge appetite for an approving audience. Reading Berry’s biography, Hughes emerges as a hungry, ambitious artist, determined to make his name. From his first Southern college tour, shortly after The Weary Blues appeared in 1925, up until his last lecture tour for the United States Information Agency in 1965, Hughes thrived on public attention. Would Hughes have felt comfortable reading as a “known Communist”? Probably not. When pickets disrupted his poetry reading at the Boston Arts Festival, in June 1961, because of his political beliefs, Hughes wrote to a friend that he was planning to stop performing “forever.”

Langston Hughes: Harlem and Beyond exposes another concealed area of Hughes’ life: his homosexuality. Berry pinpoints Hughes’ first homosexual experience as taking place aboard a merchant ship bound for Africa, and she contends that he was unable to love a woman. According to Berry, his other lovers included Countee Cullen, Zell Ingram, Noel Sullivan, and Alain Locke, the author of The New Negro. Locke’s lifelong enmity toward Hughes may have begun, Berry suggests, when Hughes broke off their physical relationship.

Berry does an admirable job of establishing the discrepancies between Hughes’ selective autobiography and his private life, but her emphasis on politics and sexuality is not enough. A sense of what motivated Hughes as an artist is painfully lacking, and it is a serious shortcoming. “A primary objective of this book is to place in perspective the man of letters,” she states in her foreword, but she fails to do so. While Berry describes Hughes’ association with writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Leopold Senghor, Jacques Roumain, and Nicholas Guillen, as well as other participants in the Harlem Renaissance, she never explores what their influence upon Hughes might have been. Indeed, she writes as though Hughes might never have had a literary idea in his head at all. She portrays Hughes as a traveling ambassador of the Left, with a clothespress crammed with poems, unpacking one in each hotel, but she ignores Hughes’ development as a writer.

The flaws in this approach to biography become obvious when Berry mentions Hughes’ reading of Vachel Lindsay and Walt Whitman, yet never discusses what Hughes took from them. It is naïve to assume that these influences are unimportant, just as it is naïve to assume that Hughes cannot be discussed in association with white poets like Carl Sandburg, whom Hughes once called his “guiding light.”

To some extent, racism, like other forms of prejudice, still exists in literature. Faith Berry ghettoizes Hughes when she fails to examine his writing as part of an interracial poetic tradition. Hughes took as much from white poets who came before him as he gave back to those who came after. In a culture where black art has always been exploited by white artists, the literary standing of a poet such as Langston Hughes must be established. Biographies like this one can be extremely valuable in that regard, but only if they act as advocates for the writers they represent.

Hughes’ work is rooted in the American populist tradition. The influence of Sandburg is apparent in such poems as “Mother to Son” and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” while other poems reflect Whitman. What is radical about this fact, of course, is the way Hughes adapted the poetry of protest and turned it to his own ends. In effect, Hughes developed a literature that used poetry to interpret events from a black perspective, that spoke directly to blacks about black experiences, and that was useful as a force for individual and social change, as well as a rallying cry.

Hughes was not only a political writer; some of his most brilliant and innovative work explored the changes in the American idiom. From his early poems in The Weary Blues (1925) right through Ask Your Mama: 12 Modes for Jazz (1961), Hughes wrote poetry that transformed the vernacular into art. Like William Carlos Williams, Hughes focused on working with everyday American speech and the music of the rhythms he heard in blues and jazz. The resulting poems are bravura performances that need to be read again today (and yet, none of them appear in the recently published Langston Hughes Reader).

The influence of music on Hughes’ poetry was immense, but Berry does not discuss this influence until her last chapter when she states that the jazz poetry movement made popular in the fifties by the Beat poets, “was nothing new to Langston Hughes, he had started it in the 1920’s.” Doesn’t it occur to Berry that Hughes might have been an influence on the Beats or does she believe that white writers wouldn’t read Hughes because he is a minority author, too specialized in appeal?

These are the sorts of questions that plague this graceful, carefully researched biography. Berry’s book stops short when she doesn’t ask why we don’t see appraisals of Langston Hughes’ poetry in literary journals alongside appraisals of Williams. It is true that Hughes was a radical writer, with a reforming vision, and yet these facts are meaningless without linking them a to larger context. We want fuller details about Hughes’ literary biography, his relationships with other writers, and his creative life. “American literature, as Hughes knew so well, was segregated,” Faith Berry writes, but why must that be true in a biography that so carefully separates art and life?


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