The burden of the past plays itself out rather differently in the white and black literary traditions. For the scholar of Western literature, the authority of canonized texts and interpretations can hobble creativity. How many years would it take just to read all the commentaries on Shakespeare, let alone make the corpus one’s own — and then to transcend it through a novel interpretation? The scholar of mainstream Western culture quickly collides with an enshrined collective memory that can confine just as surely as it preserves continuity and enables the extension of tradition.
The curse that the scholar of African and African-American studies bears, by contrast, is the absence of a printed, catalogued, collective cultural memory. Despite the interest in Black Studies since the late ’60s, we still have relatively few reference works — biographical dictionaries, annotated bibliographies, disciplinary histories, and especially encyclopedias, concordances, and dictionaries of black language use. The absence of these tools almost always forces one to recreate from degree zero the historical and critical contexts that mainstream scholars can take for granted (imagine a critic of Shakespeare having to do primary research just to identify the poet’s allusions and his historical contemporaries). The terrible excitement that scholars of Black Studies feel stems from the knowledge that virtually everything they see or write can be new — free of the burden of the canonical past, the prison house of tradition. To publish criticism still feels like making a fresh inscription on a large tabula rasa. Too often, African-Americanists must reinvent the wheel, their work forever trapped in the paradox of “repeating themselves for the first time.”
The stories of individual African-American lives are not exempted from this dearth of basic information. As Arnold Rampersad demonstrated in the Yale Review a few years ago, very few blacks have written full-length biographies of black subjects. This is particularly curious because remembering is one of the cardinal virtues of black culture — from subtle narrative devices like repetition of line and rhythm (the sermon, black music, oral narration) to more public commemorations such as the observation of “black” holidays (“Juneteenth,” Black History Month, Kwaanza) or eating “Hoppin’ John” on New Year’s Day or reinterpreting the Fourth of July to make it analogous to Good Friday rather than Easter … from Founder’s Day ceremonies and family reunions to the naming of institutions and places — Wheatley, Carver, Dunbar, and Washington public schools, Martin Luther King boulevards — to repeated historical concepts or metaphors, such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Remembering characterizes African-American culture because blacks have been systematically denied access to their history, both during and after slavery. Under slavery, of course, they were forbidden the tools of formal memory — reading and writing. They were also denied their native languages and even the drum itself (deemed subversive by many masters, and correctly so, as it was the “home” of repetition and contained a Pan-African language many blacks could understand). The intent was to deprive blacks of their memory, and their history — for without history, as Hegel said, there could be no memory, and without memory there could be no self. An abolitionist described in his memoirs this encounter: he asked after one slave’s “self,” and the man responded, “I ain’t got no self.” Without hesitation the abolitionist asked, “Slave are you?” ”That’s what I is.”
This connection among language, memory, and the self has been crucial to African-Americans, intent as they have had to be upon demonstrating both that they had common humanity with whites and that their own “selves” were as whole, “integral,” educable, and noble as those of any other ethnic group (including, among the historical twists and turns, sundry “white ethnics”). Deprived of formal recognition of their subjectivity in Western arts and letters, in jurisprudence, and in all that signals full citizenship, African-Americans sought the permanence of the book to write their rhetorical selves into language. I write therefore I am. The perilous journey from object to subject is strewn with black autobiographies; “Unscathed by Slavery” could very well be the subtitle of the hundreds of memoirs published by ex-slaves between 1760 and Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery in 1901.
This passionate concern with the self makes Rampersad’s discovery — the lack of an individual biographical impulse in the black tradition — especially fascinating. Although over 300 collective black biographies were published between the late 18th century and the middle of the 20th, and despite the fact that ours is one of the very few traditions in which writers can establish themselves as authors and spokespersons by publishing their autobiographies as first books (autobiography remains the dominant genre in the African-American tradition), only a handful of black writers have recreated the lives and times of other blacks.
It is as if the very vitality of autobiography produced a concomitant nonvitality of black biography; the energy necessary to proclaim “I am” could not be dissipated in making that claim for another. One’s public initiation was a most private act; one crossed, alone, the abyss between nothingness and being — positing humanity, selfhood, and citizenship with the stroke of one’s own pen. Only in biographical dictionaries was this isolation overcome; biography was collective, a testament to the existence of “the Negro” from A to Z, alphabetically ordered parts amounting to an African-American whole. Nurses and churchmen, club women and members of fraternal orders, freemasons and free citizens of Cincinnati — each group had its own collective testimony.
Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Langston Hughes has ended this trend. For Rampersad, in elegant but understated prose, has rendered the world that Langston Hughes made and the world that made him.
The recreation of detail is Rampersad’s most stunning achievement. He has arranged volume two in 16 chapters, each of which addresses one, two, or three years between February 1, 1941, Hughes’s 39th birthday, and May 25, 1967, the day of his memorial service at Benta’s funeral home in Harlem. The book opens with a description of Hughes’s gonorrhea and its painful cure, and ends with a meticulously recreated account of his prostate surgery, brief recovery, then ultimate deterioration. Between these rather intimate frames we learn who Hughes is, reading over his shoulder as he reveals his likes and dislikes, whom he admires and envies, when he is brave and when not so brave, when he is petty and jealous and when he is noble, when he writes for art and writes to eat, and his concerns and anxieties about his own immortality, the place of his icon in African-American letters.
Of the several rhetorical techniques Rampersad employs, none is more effective than his use of “free indirect discourse.”
Emotionally more content, Langston also spoke now with a clearer voice on politics. Attending a Carnegie Hall memorial to W. E. B. Du Bois, undeterred by the fact that Du Bois had died a communist, he also published a tribute to him in the New York Post and in black newspapers through the Associated Negro Press. To interviewers from Italian televison and the Voice of America, and in an appearance for CORE at Barnard College, he spoke confidently, but in the interests of moderation, about the freedom movement. The present turmoil was a good thing, because it was making people think. Those who did not think, but wailed apocalyptically, were doing little good.
The “voice” in those last two lines reveals thoughts that are those of both Hughes and Rampersad, and, strictly speaking, of neither. Rampersad merges, to great effect, the third-person narrative voice of the biographer with the first-person voice of his subject. He is able to tell us what Hughes thought and felt without resorting unduly to direct quotations from Hughes’s notes or letters The technique is effective preciselely because it is scarcely noticeable amid so much detail.
I have to confess that in reading this book I fell in love with Hughes, the person, for tht first time. The more I learned of his complex emotions about his peers and rivals (Du Bois, Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks, a mad Ezra Pound sending him fan letters from the asylum) the more I admired him. My respect and affection for Hughes grew so much that I found it difficult to finish the book because I knew he was going to die. I mention these feelings because I think they’re symptomatic of a literary-critical generation that recognized Hughes as icon and little else — failing, among other things, to read his poetry closely, a mistake that led to glib assertions about a body of work that was actually unfamiliar. Rampersad has removed Hughes’s cardboard cutout from the Black Hall of Fame, and replaced it with a three dimensional figure who created a specific vernacular idiom in African-American poetry, one informed by the blues and jazz — by both the classic and the urban blues and early jazz in his two masterpieces, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), and by bebop, the cool, and even postmodern, poststructural, early/transitional Coltrane in Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz (1961). Ask Your Mama is to Hughes’s canon as Duke Ellington’s longer compositions are to his earlier, shorter, popular pieces — that is, either maligned or ignored. Hughes’s experiments with vernacular music and speech, and their combination into a new idiom of American and African-American verse, insure for him a permanent place in both canons.
Just as important was Hughes’s role in mediating among African cultures in the old world and the new. Only Du Bois, as both convener of the Pan-African congresses and epitome of African intellection, can possibly rival Hughes in being the conduit between black poets and their poetry in Spanish, French, and English. Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor read Hughes: Hughes translated them into English, just as he did Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew (with Mercer Cook). He also translated Nicolás Guillén and García Lorca’s Gypsy Ballads from the Spanish. Hughes’s role in creating a Pan-African literary culture, where poems by black authors in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English directly inform the shape of other poems by other black authors, has no rival in our intellectual history. Hughes’s poetry and his translations forged a direct line between the new Negroes in Harlem and the Pan-Africans in Paris, Havana, Rio, Lagos, Dakar, Kingston, and Port-au-Prince. He worked to create a Pan-African intellectual culture just as Latin and the Church forged a Pan-European culture in the Middle Ages, even when peasants in what is now Germany or France knew not one jot about a ”European” anything.
Hughes preserved his letters and memorabilia as if he were his own historian or archivist, with one eye on his correspondent, and the other on the James Weldon Johnson Collection at Yale, where Carl Van Vechten had arranged for Hughes’s papers to be housed. Over almost a decade, Rampersad patiently pored over and sifted through the voluminous documentation, supplementing the testimony of the correspondence with thousands of hours of taped interviews. The result of such diligent labor, rendered in a highly readable narrative style, is a splendid thing to behold: Rampersad has published the most sophisticated biography of a black subject, and set the example by which all other biographies of black subjects will be judged. He has in other words, defined a standard of excellence and simultaneously created a field: the success of these books, as measured in sales, accolades, and well-deserved prizes, will certainly make biography a central field in African-American literary studies. Meeting the standard he has established, however, will be extraordinarily difficult.
Rampersad’s two volumes have been reviewed extensively, from Greg Tate’s fascinating essay in these pages (VLS, July 1988) and Darryl Pinckney’s meditation in The New York Review (February 16, 1989), to two full-length reviews in the Times Book Review by two black women Pulitzer Prize-winning poets, Gwendolyn Brooks and Rita Dove — surely a coup of sorts in the history of black literary criticism. It is a tribute to Rampersad’s skill that each of these reviews has become a basis for discussing the implications of Hughes’s life and art, as if the biographer’s own work could be taken for granted or was, somehow, transparent. Of course, one measure of successful biography as Rampersad practices it is just this “transparency,” this absence of methodological discussion in favor of a full-scale engagement with Langston Hughes, or rather with ”Langston Hughes” as lovingly recreated by this subtle biographer.
Rampersad brings us into Hughes’s world, feeling as he feels, seeing as he sees. Not once do we feel the hand of the author on our shoulder, pushing us to interpret this way or that:
The day was cool, the sky above the Monterey Peninsula murky with rain and winter mists when Langston rode from the hospital to the grounds of his friend and patron Noel Sullivan’s estate, Hollow Hills Farm some five miles away in Carmel Valley. Since September, he had been living there as a guest of Sullivan’s in a one-room cottage built especially for him, where he could write and sleep free from most distractions. Now, however, he unpacked in an upstairs room in the main house where, over the next two weeks or so, he would nurse himself back to health. The room was comfortable, and soothingly decorated entirely in blue. On a side table was a gift sent form New York by his loyal friend Carl Van Vechten — a flowering plant, ”a kind of glowing little tree growing out of white pebbles in a white pot…”
Imagine how much research was necessary to recreate these scenes; the lines read like passages from a novel. Rampersad shows us what it was like to be Hughes as a human being, a human being who smells and breathes and hurts, who dreams and is ambitious, who can be loving and peevish and jealous, who laughs rather too much when he is most anxious or full of dread, and who cares enormously about maintaining a love affair with the entire race.
If ever a loving concern for “the race,” and a concomitant concern with its regard for him, defined what it means to be a “race man,” then Hughes was the example of it. Hughes cared passionately about regular Negroes, and about the importance of not appearing distant from them; as Rampersad says, “Langston psychologically needed the race in order to survive and flourish.” What’s more, he was “one of the few black writers of any consequence to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists.” Hughes earned the right to call himself the poet laureate of the Negro race. And Rampersad’s art as a biographer lets us understand why.
Rampersad explains how the “depth of [Hughes’s] identification with the race” helped free him
not only to understand that the profession of writing was distinct from the “subject,” but also to see his race in a rounded humane way, rather than mainly as a deformed product of white racism. To Langston, Baldwin was tortured by a sense of an “all but irreconcilable” tension (in Baldwin’s words) between race and art because he lacked confidence in his own people and certainly did not love them, as Langston did. To Hughes, only a deep confidence in blacks and a love of them (two qualities that could not be divorced) would allow a black writer to reach the objectivity toward art that Hughes saw as indispensable. Baldwin was undoubtedly more troubled by race than he was, but Langston was far more what blacks regarded approvingly as a race man, far more involved with other blacks on a daily basis as a citizen and an artist, far less willing to estrange or exile himself from the culture, as Baldwin had done in going to live abroad.
Rampersad treats Hughes’s attitudes toward Baldwin, Wright, Ellison, and other black peers at fascinating length. For example, in 1953 a young Ralph Ellison, whom Hughes had befriended early on, emerged almost overnight as the dominant black voice in American letters:
Ellison’s triumph with Invisible Man was crowned when he accepted the National Book Award in fiction. Present at the ceremony but obviously alienated in spirit, Langston reported to Arna Bontemps [a black novelist and Hughes’s closest friend since the Renaissance] that the proceedings were “mildly interesting,” dull really, with all the speeches stuffily delivered from prepared texts. Not long afterwards, at a cocktail party at the Algonquin Hotel in midManhattan to welcome Ellison as a new member of PEN, he begged the new star of Afro-American writing not to read a long, dull paper when he visited Fisk University soon — long papers were so dull. As he had with Wright almost fifteen years before, Langston was feeling the chill of his own eclipse.
But it was Baldwin with whom Hughes had the most difficult relations:
He shivered again early in February when an advance copy reached him of the latest sensation in black literature, James Baldwin’s dramatic first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, about a black boy’s troubled passage to manhood in the face of raw conflicts with his domineering father and the terrifying pressures of black “storefront” religious fundamentalism. Worse yet, from Hughes’s point of view, the book was being published by Knopf, who for all practical purposes had dropped him (the reception of Montage of a Dream Deferred had gutted its interest in his volume of selected poems). Criticizing Baldwin’s sometimes unstable blending of gritty realism and refined rhetoric in the novel, Hughes judged that if Zora Neale Hurston, “with her feeling for the folk idiom,” had been its author, “it would probably be a quite wonderful book.” Baldwin, however, “over-writes and over-poeticizes in images way over the heads of the folks supposedly thinking them,” in what finally was “an ‘art’ book about folks who aren’t ‘art’ folks.” Go Tell It on the Mountain, he concluded, was “a low-down story in a velvet bag — and a Knopf binding.”
In spite of this criticism, Langston dutifully mailed a blurb for the novel to Knopf.
Nine years later Baldwin still troubled him.
To Langston, there was little that was truly creative, much less visionary, about Another Country. Privately to Arna Bontemps, he described Baldwin as aiming for a best-seller in “trying to out-Henry Henry Miller in the use of bad BAD bad words, or run [Harold Robbins’s] The Carpetbaggers one better on sex in bed and out, left and right, plus a description of a latrine with all the littleboy words reproduced in the telling.” In the same letter, Langston linked what he saw as Baldwin’s excesses to the trend of integration sapping the strength of black youth. Paying a stiff price for the modicum of integration allowed them, young blacks were abandoning the old values and practices in the rush to be like whites. “Cullud is doing everthing white folks are doing these days!” Langston mocked … “Integration is going to RUIN Negro business,” he predicted — as it apparently threatened to ruin the finest young writer of fiction in the race.
Rarely have we been privy to the real feelings of black creative artists and intellectuals toward one other. The disagreement with Baldwin was, sure, one of many. Indeed, Hughes’s reactions to Melvin Tolson, Robert Hayden, and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka — in addition to Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison — reveal how fraught with rivalry life “behind the veil” is, just as Jessie Fauset’s comments to him (“I’ve suffered a good deal from colored men writers from Locke down to Bontemps you know”) begin to suggest the degree of sexism that also has characterized African-American literary relations.
I had never realized that Hughes interacted with so many major figures in the artistic world between 1925 and his death in 1967. Hughes knew everybody, if almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personas to the world. Leafing through Rampersad’s index, one finds a veritable Who’s Who of 20th century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tote, Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice and cocktail-party embodiment as well as the source of its printed texts. Reading Rampersad’s volumes makes it clear how deeply ingrained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition, even if scholars, until very, very recently, bracketed it into a ghetto apart, the Harlem of the American canon.
In rendering Hughes’s reactions to and interactions with his equally famous contemporaries, Rampersad’s biography chronicles almost half a century in the history of both American art and the life and times of one of its most important figures. Through him we see and feel exactly how the great events in black history — the Harlem Renaissance, the Depression, World War II, McCarthyite repression, the civil rights movement, the emergence of Africa and the larger process of decolonization as the Age of Europe came to a close with the lifting of “the color curtain,” and the rebirth of black nationalism in the Black Power era — how all of these large forces simultaneously delimit and open up individual choices in the daily events that, taken together, define a life. Never has an account of a black human being revealed more vividly the particularities of a life within the context of large, public forces and events. No life, no matter how great, can possibly escape its context, its historical moment. For all his political ambivalences, Hughes saw this clearly, saying in one unpublished reflection:
Politics in any country in the world is dangerous. For the poet, politics in any country in the world had better be disguised as poetry … Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.
What is poetry? It is the human soul entire, squeezed like a lemon or a lime, drop by drop, into atomic words. The ethnic language does not matter. Ask Aimé Césaire. He knows … Perhaps not consciously — but in the soul of his writing, he knows … The Negritudinous Senghor, the Caribbeanesque Guillén, the American me, are regional poets of genuine realities and authentic values. Césaire … takes all that we have, Senghor, Guillén and Hughes, and flings it at the moon, to make of it a spaceship of the dreams of all the dreamers in the world.
As a footnote I must add that, concerning Césaire, all I have said I deeply feel is for me true. Concerning politics, nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics?
Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead.
Rampersad deftly creates a sense of the social, the political, and the historical as these are locked in a dialectical relationship with individual choices, determining their range of response yet determined by such responses as well. Nowhere in black biography has this relation between “text” and context been rendered as sensitively and truly.
For most of his professional life, Hughes lived hand to mouth, his choices circumscribed perhaps even more by economics than by racism. He was supported by patrons like Noel Sullivan, a dependence necessitated by the insulting treatment he received from publishers and the pittance he earned for his writings and readings.
Hughes’s books were widely reviewed in mainstream journals by mainstream writers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms. His newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a/k/a “Simple”), who appeared in a regular column Hughes wrote for the Chicago Defender, was remarkably popular; he was the vox populi persona of Hughes the “race man.” Simple once spoke eloquently to an obtuse friend on the meaning of bebop music:
That is where Bop comes from, … out of them dark days we have seen. That is why Be-Bop is so mad, wild, frantic, crazy. And not to be dug unless you have seen dark days, too. That’s why folks who ain’t suffered much cannot play Bop, and do not understand it. They think it’s nonsense — like you. They think it’s just crazy crazy. They do not know it is also MAD crazy, SAD crazy, FRANTIC WILD CRAZY — beat right out of some bloody black head! That’s what Bop is. These young kids who play it best, they know.
Simple’s discussion of bebop shows how rich the Defender columns were, and how crucial jazz was to Hughes. Accordingly, we must learn to read him in new ways, “through” or “against” the African-American vernacular.
As Rampersad puts it:
At varying, unpredictable times witty, sardonic, ironic, expository, whimsical, documentary, and tragic, “Montage of a Dream Deferred” is an expansiue poetic statement on the fate of blacks in the modern, urban world. The manuscript was Hughes’s answer in 1948 to the overwhelming question of the day in Harlem and communities like it, and possibly, prophetically, of the Afro-American future: “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?” “This poem on contemporary Harlem,” Langston wrote as a preface, “is marked by conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms, and passages sometimes in the manner of the jam session, sometimes the popular song, punctuated by the riffs, runs, breaks, and disc-tortions of the music of a community in transition.” The poet’s love for the community is paramount, but his brooding intelligence is such that the wooden phrase “community in transition” is really portentous.
In “Jazztet Muted,” for example, the 11th section of Ask Your Mama, Hughes introduced the poem with a musical cue that called for “bop blues into very modern jazz burning the air eerie like a neon swamp-fire cooled by dry ice”:
IN THE NEGROES OF THE QUARTER
PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE BLACK SHADOWS MOVE LIKE SHADOWS
CUT FROM SHADOWS CUT FROM SHADE
IN THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
SUDDENLY CATCHING FIRE
FROM THE WING TIP OF A MATCH TIP
ON THE BREATH OF ORNETTE COLEMAN.
IN NEGRO TOMBS THE MUSIC FROM JUKEBOX JOlNTS IS LAID AND FREE-DELIVERY TV SETS ON GRAVESTONES DATES ARE PLAYED.
EXTRA-LARGE THE KINGS AND QUEENS
AT EITHER SIDE ARRAYED
HAVE DOORS THAT OPEN OUTWARD
TO THE QUARTER OF THE NEGROES
WHERE THE PRESSURE OF THE BLOOD
IS SLIGHTLY HIGHER —
DUE TO SMOLDERING SHADOWS
THAT SOMETIMES TURN TO FIRE.
HELP ME, YARDBIRD!
Rampersad’s assessments of Hughes’s poetry are always judicious; he never claims more for Hughes the poet than the poetry can deliver, yet his sensitive analyses of the poems should dispel forever the whisper among our critical generation that Hughes’s poetry does not withstand the rigors of formal analysis. Quite the contrary, Rampersad’s readings of Hughes’s best work — his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama — should go a long way toward generating interest in rereading, closely, Hughes’s work, since as Hughes himself recognized, “only poetry can be [the poet’s] resurrection.” As Senghor wrote, Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration. You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse … And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.”
Hughes was wrong when he wrote that only his poetry could possibly resurrect him, for it is also true that a great biographer resurrects the poet and the poetry, a life and a body of work — the latter “as fragile as pottery,” as Hughes put it. One of Arnold Rampersad’s great gifts to Hughes, and to all of us who love literature, is that never again shall the poetry or the poet be silenced.
Rampersad’s other great gift is that he has made biography a glamorous pursuit within the new black criticism, which has been dominated recently by feminist and poststructural theorizing. This two-volume biography will go a long way toward generating other biographies and thereby building up an African-American cultural memory. We need good biographies of so many figures, from Phyllis Wheatley and Harriet Jacobs to Du Bois and Alain Locke, James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry — virtually everyone who was anyone in the tradition remains to be written about, honestly.
For far too long, each of us has been imprisoned by peer pressure, forced to represent only certain images of the Negro in order to avoid inadvertent reinforcement of racist stereotypes. This sort of tortured logic has surfaced most glaringly in misguided protests against key black feminist texts: Michele Wallace’s Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls … , Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “What will white racists think of black men?” the protesters asked, barely managing to keep a straight face. (Since when does a racist read The Color Purple — or anything at all, for that matter?)
No, we no longer need to sanitize the black past as we set about the complex business of generating our own AfricanAmerican icons of the near and distant past. For it is our generation of AfricanAmericanists that, at last, has the wherewithal to encode the cultural memory in print, in video, on compact disc and on-line, freed at last from forever reinventing the wheel.
Rampersad has made a breathtaking start in treating Langston Hughes, who suffered more than most from the cramped solitude of iconography. Hughes’s public face(s) — and although he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was certainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some 10,000 people — were crafted such that his true human substance could not be seen among his carefully manufactured shadows. He was a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it. The irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines — “How public — like a Frog —/ To tell your name — the livelong June —/ To an admiring Bog!”
The ironies hardly end there. Hughes protected — censored — himself as a racial icon; Black Studies scholars have censored their treatment of many figures in the interest of positive images; and black artists today, indeed most any black public figure, must contend with the tradition of self-censorship. Consider the impact this had on Langston Hughes’s sexuality. As Rampersad judges, with great sensitivity:
The truth about his sexuality will probably never be discovered. If Hughes indeed had homosexual lovers, what may be asserted incontrovertibly is that he did so with al most fanatical discretion. On this question, every person curious about him and also apparently in a position to know the truth was left finally in the dark. He laughed and joked and gossiped with apparent abandon but somehow contrived to remain a mystery on this score even to his intimates. His ability to appear to be at ease and defenseless, and at the same time to deny certain kinds of knowledge to those with him, was extraordinary. All his life he prized control far too highly for him to surrender it in his most mature years. Control above all meant to him the preservation of his position as the most admired and beloved poet of his race. That position, which he saw as a moral trust, and which intimately connected his deepest emotional needs to his function as an artist, may have meant too much for him to risk it for illicit sex.
Rampersad was unable to prove our assumption about Hughes’s homosexuality, despite his impressive research skills. Had it been provable, Rampersad would have done so. His bolder conclusion is that this most basic “fact” about Hughes remains elusive after two volumes precisely because of Hughes’s determination to be a racial icon, to be presentable as the public face of the race. “Don’t go to that swimming pool,” my mother used to say, “without that moisturizing cream. I don’t want you to embarrass the race by turning ashy.” That’s one part of black history we need to bury, the urge to produce a public Negro somehow more palatable to white people than the real thing. In defining the standard by which literary biography in our tradition, and in every tradition, shall be measured, Rampersad has helped to do just that. As Hughes and his alter ego, Arna Bontemps, liked to say, Rampersad has “done himself brown.” ❖
THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I, TOO, SING AMERICA, Volume I: 1902-1941. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $27.50; $9.95 paper.
THE LIFE OF LANGSTON HUGHES: I DREAM A WORLD, Volume II: 1941- 1967. By Arnold Rampersad. Oxford, $24.95.
SELECTED POEMS OF LANGSTON HUGHES. Vintage, $5.95 paper.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 29, 2020