Renaissance man of the south
Gary Younge remembers Langston Hughes, America's most popular poet, whose centenary is celebrated in London next week
Saturday 26 October 2002
In 1920, an envelope postmarked from Kentucky arrived at the offices of the African-American artistic and intellectual magazine Crisis. Inside it was a poem called "The Negro speaks of rivers". When the literary editor, Jessie Fauset, read it, she handed it straight to her editor and mentor, WEB du Bois. "I took the beautiful dignified creation to Dr du Bois," she recalled, "and said 'What colored person is there, do you suppose, in the United States who writes like that and is yet unknown to us?' "
The "colored person" in question was Langston Hughes and within a few years of the poem's publication he would be known to all of Black America and to any lovers of prose poetry elsewhere whose appreciation allowed them to venture across the colour line at the time.
A full century after his birth, the breadth of his appeal and the durability of his work is now beyond doubt. Earlier this year, Hughes, who died in 1967, was voted America's most popular poet in an online poll by the Academy of American Poets, ahead of the likes of Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Now, contrary to the exhortations of Public Enemy's rap anthem "Fight the Power" - "I'm black and I'm proud / I'm ready, I'm hyped and I'm amped / Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamp" - the US postal service has issued a 34 cent stamp bearing his face.
Any doubt about the enduring and universal qualities of his work are easily dispelled by just one verse of "Let America be America again", which is as pertinent today as it was in 1938:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")
Given the huge array of talent that emerged from the Harlem renaissance, the rush of artistic, musical and literary energy that emanated from upper Manhattan after the first world war and was all but decimated by the Wall Street crash, it is shocking that only Hughes, and to a lesser extent his onetime friend, the novelist Zora Neale Hurston, appears to have made it beyond the confines of race, place and time. Other writers, such as Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher and Jean Toomer are feted in literary circles and known to African-American readers, but have never enjoyed the mainstream acclaim they deserve.
But Hughes was, in every sense of the word, a Renaissance man. As well as writing poetry, plays and essays throughout his life, he worked on ships and in laundries, covered the Spanish civil war for the Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore and toured central Asia after plans to stage a musical in Moscow foundered.
He was born in Missouri to a frustrated father, who abandoned the family and America in favour of personal ambition and Mexico, which in turn frustrated and impoverished his mother. While she travelled the country looking for work, Hughes was raised by his grandmother - a highly politicised woman whose first husband had been killed at the abolitionist insurrection in Harper's Ferry, where John Brown, along with 21 other men - 16 of them white - had attempted to establish a base in the Blue Ridge Mountains from which they would assist runaway slaves and launch attacks on slaveholders. The uprising was crushed by the local militia and the rebels killed.
Hughes spent his boyhood in Kansas and adolescence in Ohio, a lonely, sensitive child, who recalled being driven "to books, and the wonderful world in books", counting among his main influences Walt Whitman, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. It was this teenager who posted his poem to Crisis. So by the time he arrived in Harlem, after a short stint in Mexico with his father and dropping out of Columbia University, he was already well known.
Both his personal story and the intellectual conclusions he had drawn from it embodied the mindset of the "New Negro" - the urban, urbane, self-confident, black northern relatives to their downtrodden, culturally deprived cousins in the rural south - of which the Harlem renaissance was the cultural expression.
In 1926, Hughes published a manifesto, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", that still resonates: "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. If colored people are pleased we are glad. 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 the top of the mountain, free within ourselves."
Hughes was true to his word, his work unashamedly informed by the black American experience - his ashes were spread under Harlem's Schomburg library - but never defined by it. In his autobiography he described his work as "poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street - gay songs, because you had to be gay or die; sad songs, because you couldn't help being sad sometimes. But gay or sad, you kept on living and you kept on going."
Eager to frame his poetry in a manner that would lend it popular appeal, he was bold in his efforts to manipulate the genre. He once urged a publisher to bill him as "the original jazz poet". "Jazz gives poetry a much wider following and poetry brings jazz the greater respectability that people seem to think it needs," he said in 1958. "I don't think it needs it but most people seem to."
But while this made his work popular it also brought down stern criticism from the "talented tenth" of the black American intelligentsia (Hurston branded them Negrotarians) who felt he was vulgarising his artistic talents. Moreover, in the era of new criticism, Hughes's straightforward style did not sit well with literary scholars keen to abstract his work from its context. Even James Baldwin trashed his book of selected poems in 1959.
Hughes's work suffered during and shortly after his trip to the Soviet Union in 1932, when overt polemicism gave a shrill and occasionally hysterical tone to his work. It was a lapse in artistic judgment that would have political consequences. In 1953, he was forced to testify before the Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Un-American Activities Committee. There, he named no names, insisted he had never been a member of the Communist party and effectively denounced some of his own work. It was a humiliating experience.
He started his testimony: "Poets who write mostly about love, roses and moonlight, sunsets and snow must lead a very quiet life - seldom does their poetry get them into difficulties." But that was not Hughes's style. Not that he did not write about those things, but when he did, the sun set or the moon shone in a world where black people, rarely depicted before with the full complement of human emotions, were the ones showing love and giving roses.
His strength, as a writer and a human being, was to understand that his talent was the starting point for his engagement with the world at large. "Words have been used too much to make people doubt and fear," he said. "Words must now be used to make people believe and do. Writers who have the power to use words in terms of belief and action are responsible to that power not to make people believe in the wrong things."
From Selected poems:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore -
and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat
Or crust and sugar over- Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it just explode?
Post a Comment