Tuesday, February 01, 2011

In Memoriam: Langston Hughes

As one of the many talented writers to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was as influenced by his contemporaries as he influenced them, illustrating the kind of cultural foment that was present during that unprecedented era; in many ways, though, Hughes was always slightly out of place. Early in his career he was too proud to be black when most black writers were trying to be white, and during the Black Power movement which emerged towards the end of his life he was too reasonable when those emerging were angry or vindictive.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was raised far from the lights of Manhattan; after an unsettled childhood spent throughout the Midwest, and a few years of restless travel, he eventually settled for a time in Washington, DC, where he worked as assistant to Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. While there he met the poet Vachel Lindsay who 'discovered' him, on the eve of the publication of his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926.

Although Hughes briefly attended Columbia, he soon left owing to the bigotry he encountered there; his education continued at Lincoln University. Yet there are those who would say his real education came from the extensive travels he had undertaken before, during, and after his university career. Following on from his restless youth, he was later to see Mexico, Europe (living for awhile in Paris), North Africa, the Soviet Union, central Asia, China, and Japan. Yet despite the terrible racism that'd been visited upon him there, he kept returning to the United States.

Although initially drawn to the promise of change offered by Communism, the closer he got the more illusory those promises seemed; when he was called upon to testify before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953 like many others whose Depession-era hopes for the Party were soured by the subsequent outrages of Stalinism, Hughes had already soured on his more radical inclinations.

He was one of the grand old men of African-American letters by the time he died in May 1967, having written steadily and in every form for more than fifty years. Since then much of his reputation has rested on his presumed heterosexuality; yet it was and is a false presumption, as his work contains many coded as well as many blatant references to the contrary. Such is the power of the closet, however, that we may never have the full picture of the life of Langston Hughes.
share on: facebook

No comments: