Warts and all, the Langston Hughes who emerges from the first volume of Arnold Rampersad’s exceptional biography doesn’t suffer badly in comparison with the varnished Poet Laureate of Negro America that blacks have been raised on for generations. A staple of high-school curricula and home recitation, Hughes figures in African-American life as significantly as in its letters, a literary hero the culture cozied up to like a warm hearth. Hughes was the first black American writer many of us ever read, and some of his verses hold the high honor of having been accepted into the canon of black mother wit — “Son, life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” is the most famous; “Nobody loves a genius child” runs a close second. Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Nicolas Guillen, Amiri Baraka, and Gil Scott-Heron were all beneficiaries of Hughes’s lifelong encouragement of younger dark writers, and his career remains an inspiring model for black writers determined to make a living solely from their work.
Well, an inspiring model of sorts. As Rampersad details, Hughes spent the first two decades of an adventuresome life chasing fortune more doggedly than literary fame. He was fortunate in having fame thrust upon him early — publication in W. E. B. Du Bois’s Crisis in 1921 brought him the kindness of patrons black and white. Nevertheless, his youth reads like a 20th century guide to writing your way into history on $5 a day. Being a pauper didn’t keep him from covering the globe; much of Rampersad’s volume is spent tracking Hughes’s movements from the Midwest to Mexico, New York, Africa, Russia, and Spain.
Blessed with a facility for cheeriness, Hughes seems to have made it on little more than good vibes and curiosity. In the late ’30s, his veteran-bohemian advice to Manhattan newcomer Ralph Ellison was “Be nice to people, and let them buy your meals” (according to Ellison, it paid off immediately). Still, the specter of capital, or rather the lack and hungry pursuit thereof, viciously haunts Rampersad’s Hughes. In plying the writer’s trade to serve the race and feed himself, Hughes made considerable artistic, personal, and political sacrifices and compromises. These form the core of the biography’s character revelations, though Rampersad appropriately notes how deeply Hughes’s upbringing conditioned his adult persona.
True to the old saws that artists need unhappy childhoods and bad relationships with their fathers, Hughes spent at least half his life drawing upon the misery fate had doled out to him on both counts. His parents, James and Carrie Hughes, separated not long after he was born, and young Langston thereafter saw little of his mother, who left him for long stretches in his grandmother’s care. She was out seeking clerical work where she could find it in the poet-to-be’s birth-state, Kansas. On his mother’s side, Hughes was descended from distinguished free blacks, the abolitionists Charles and Mary Langston, who’d worked for the underground railroad. Mary lost her first husband, James Leary, in the Harpers Ferry raid. Hughes’s father, the self-educated son of slaves, was anything but a race man. “Detesting the poor, he especially disliked the black poor. He was unsentimental, even cold. ‘My father hated Negroes,’ Langston Hughes would judge. ‘I think he hated himself for being a Negro. He disliked all of his family because they were Negroes.’ Where Carrie’s parents had instilled in her a sense of noblesse oblige, Jim Hughes seemed to look upon most blacks as undeserving cowards.”
Rebellion against his father, as certainly as the race history he got on grandma Langston’s knee (she used to wrap him in her first husband’s blood-stained shawl), played a large part in Hughes’s decision to become a race-conscious bard. Growing up in all-white neighborhoods throughout his school years, he developed a diplomatic approach to race relations and an intellectual and emotional rapprochement with black working-class culture. Like many subsequent black middle-class writers, he entered into a professional relationship with that culture which derived in equal parts from a sense of mission and a need to work out his own obsessions. The desire to resolve the conflict between responsibility to the race and responsibility to literary ideals informs much black American writing. Hughes’s resolution would both nourish and compromise his art.
In 1915, when Hughes was 13, he was taken to a revival meeting by his aunt and lied about having been saved by the Holy Ghost. While he wept over the lie, he also recognized its necessity in allowing him to keep faith with black culture. “At thirteen, Hughes probably already viewed the black world both as an insider, and far more importantly, as an outsider. The view from outside did not lead to clinical objectivity, much less alienation. Once outside, every intimate force in Hughes would drive him toward seeking the love and approval of the race, which would become the grand obsession of his life.”
After high school, Hughes went to Mexico to live with his father, who responded to his wish to write for a living with the advice that he should learn a skill which would take him away from the United States, “where you have lived like a nigger with niggers.” Fueled by his father’s hate, Hughes wrote poems that fused his personal hurts with his desire for love from blacks — black maternal love in particular. Through these poems, he would eventually find a home in Crisis and an empathetic editor in Jessie Fauset, doyenne of the Harlem Renaissance. After going to New York in the fall of 1920 to attend Columbia, Hughes upped the ante with racial verse aimed as much at unnerving his father as at providing uplift for the masses. According to Rampersad,
At lectures and readings at the Harlem Branch Library on 135th Street, Hughes met the black intelligentsia; but his main interest was the people, of whom his vision was both intensely romantic and cold.. . Fastidious and yet bohemian, moral but determined never to judge his people, Hughes instead celebrated his kinship with these
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate —
My people …
Dishwashers, elevator boys, maids, crapshooters, cooks, waiters, hairdressers, and porters — he sang the ordinary and the low. In this way he met his father’s contempt for black folk and for the poor.
Hughes also wrote his pioneering jazz and blues poems in this period, works that forged the bond between the muse of black poets and 20th century black music:
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
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.
In June 1923, Hughes shipped out to Africa as a sailor. As Rampersad notes, he saw Africa before elder Africanists Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois set foot on the continent. Significantly, his initial observations of Dakar were anything but romantic and bordered on racist. “Hughes’s first impression was of crudeness and absurdity. Wandering through the town in ninety degree heat, his head spinning from glasses of cheap white wine, Langston that day saw Africa as ridiculous — black men dressed in billowy white gowns, sweating market women with bare breasts, children stark naked to the world. Giddy, he sat down to describe the scene to his mother. ‘You should see the clothes they wear here,’ he wrote Carrie, ‘everything from overcoats to nothing. I have laughed until I can’t. No two people dress alike. Some have on capes, some shawls, some pants, some wear blue cloths fastened around their necks and feet blowing out like sails behind. Some have on preachers’ coats, others knee pants like bloomers, with half-hose and garters. It’s a scream!’ ” But by the end of August, Hughes would see Africa less as a “blur of exotic images” than as a place held in underdevelopment by colonialism’s grip. For Hughes, Africa had become “ten year old wharf rats offering nightly to take sailors to see ‘my sisters two shillings,’ ” elephantiasis and swollen bodies under palm trees, white men with guns at their belts, inns and taverns with signs up, EUROPEANS ONLY, missionary churches with Negroes in the back seats and the whites who teach Jesus in the front rows.”
“The white man dominates Africa,” Hughes would write. “He takes produce and lives, very much as he chooses … And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower below the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws made in Europe for the black colonies.” Hughes had been writing African-identified poetry but found that no African believed him, with his copper-brown skin and straight Indian hair, to be black like them. In response, he began to write poetry inflected with the Pan-Africanist ideal.
The night is beautiful
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
Beautiful, also, is the sun
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Hughes visited Europe before returning to Harlem in 1924, just as the well-engineered Harlem Renaissance was entering full swing. Yet his participation in the many fêtes aimed at securing white patronage and book contracts for black bohemian intellectuals would be stymied by a move to Washington with his mother. Life in Washington, as an upstart black poet, brought him into conflict with the black middle class, toward whom he turned up his nose in a bohemian sniff. It’s nearly tragicomic that what Hughes thought about his upwardly mobile brethren and sistren of the day describes a fair portion of their ’80s successors to a tee. “The younger blacks were obsessed by money and position, fur coats and flashy cars: ‘their ideals seemed most Nordic and un-Negro.’ Lightskinned women coolly snubbed their darker acquaintances. College men boasted of attending pink teas graced by only blue veined belles almost indistinguishable from whites … they had all the manners and airs of reactionary ill-bred nouveaux riches except that they were not really rich. Just middle class.”
Washington was also responsible for Hughes’s sharpening his knowledge of blues and jazz culture and further developing his working-class consciousness. Hilariously, the anything but mellifluous Hughes once dared to unleash his brand of blues singing on the Rock Creek Bridge. It provoked a passerby to rush to his aid, mistaking his unsoulful moans for agony. Hughes had encounters with notables black and white in D.C., including famed black historian Carter G. Woodson, and the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom he slipped some poems while working as a busboy. In Baltimore, he met Bessie Smith. When Hughes asked for her “theory of the blues,” Smith dished how all she knew was that the blues had put her “in de money.” (Though Rampersad gives this seemingly trivial rejoinder short shrift, it would carry considerable weight with poststructuralist blues scholars and folklorists.)
In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Between 1926 and 1939, he would write and publish much of the best and most influential work of his prolific career — his second volume of poems, the controversially titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (“When hard luck overtakes you/ Nothin’ for you to do/ Gather up yo’ fine clothes/ An’ sell ’em to the Jew”), a short story collection, The Ways of White Folks, the novel Not Without Laughter, the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea, several children’s books in collaboration with his lifelong friend Arna Bontemps, and the most financially successful of his plays, Mulatto. He also spent time gathering information and soaking up the scenery in Cuba and Haiti, did a foreign correspondent stint in Spain during the Civil War, and spent a year in Russia. The Russian sojourn came about in 1932, when Hughes and a host of young Harlemite writers and activists were entreated by a German film company to star in a fiasco production of a working-class musical.
His flirtations with socialism were partly out of self-interest — when mainstream publishers wouldn’t come through for him, New Masses would pick up the slack. But his leftist poetry compromised little of his plain-spoken lyricism and engaged some very radical views. While undertaking his Russian expedition, Hughes wrote the most radically strident poem of his life, “Goodbye, Christ,” — all the more blasphemous for its sermon-like cadences.
You did alright in your day I reckon —
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too.
Called it Bible —
But it’s dead now.
The popes and preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many
Kings, generals, robbers, and killers —
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s church …
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson.
Hughes never intended for this poem to leave Russia, but it was passed on to black American communist leader Harry Heywood, who published it. This was much to Hughes’s later regret when the rabid evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson mounted an attack that gathered black church forces behind her.
There was a profound contradiction between Hughes’s radicalism and his need to be accepted by the black masses. He was neither the first nor the last black intellectual to feel tugged apart by the ideological demands of a white-dominated left and his nationalist tendencies, as Harold Cruse’s epochal work on that conundrum, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, makes clear. To his sometime patron of the ’30s, Noel Sullivan, Hughes confessed that since poverty seemed to be his lot, “the only thing I can do is string along with the Left until maybe someday all of us poor folks will get enough to eat, including rent, gas, light and water.”
Hughes’s disavowal of politics in the late ’30s was influenced by dollar signs more than politics or feeling for the masses. “To a large extent, he gave up on radicalism not on ideological grounds, but as an impractical involvement that endangered his career as a writer. Radicalism paid very poorly in America; it also tended to estrange him from the black masses. Accordingly, he had been returning the needle of his conscience to its oldest and deepest groove, that of race. But instead of attempting to explain or justify this realignment, Hughes had done everything he could to conceal it … he could point to his renewed emphasis on race as proof of his distance from communism, and pass off as deep alienation what was in fact pragmatic withdrawal.”
In 1940, when Richard Wright’s Native Son became a Book of the Month club best-seller and the best-selling black book ever, Hughes reacted with dismay and envy, not least because he had shelved a project similar to Native Son, fearing it would have no market in New Deal America. Talk about your deferred dreams. Rampersad leaves Hughes still struggling (acclaim and notoriety notwithstanding) to make ends meet for himself and his mother, whose welfare he assumed like a guilty burden rather than the duty of a loving son. In his need to become the most beloved genius child in black literary history, he had sacrificed his writerly independence and forced himself to bedrock his maturity on filial responsibility. How Hughes’s recurrent conflict with mom, muse, money, and the masses is played out will surely add to the drama of Rampersad’s next chapters. ❖
THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: Volume 1, 1902-1941 I, Too, Sing America By Amold Rampersad Oxford University Press, $22.95; $9.95 paper
[Editor’s note: Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that the photographer credit for the illustration at the top of this article is “Griff Davis / Black Star,” while on the original page back in 1988 (below) the credit is for “Greg Davis / Black Star.” We recently learned that this portrait of Langston Hughes was indeed taken by Griffith J. Davis, a storied photographer who was Ebony magazine’s first Roving Editor. Starting in 1949, he became an international photojournalist for the the Black Star Publishing Agency, and was later a U.S. Foreign Service Officer during the early U.S. civil rights movement and the Independence Movement of Africa. More information is available at www.griffdavis.com.]
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 23, 2020