I Too, Hate White Privileged Men, and White Patriarchy: How Langston Hughes Experiences With Racism, and Patriarchy Led Him Abroad
I swear to my Lord, I can see why Democracy means everybody but me — Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes. He was the inspiration behind Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance, a musical genius, a poet, and voice for social justice.
But it wasn’t always so great for the multi-talented Hughes. Throughout his career, Hughes was constantly harassed by the U.S. government for his alleged ties to communism.
But in places like Nigeria, France, and Cuba, devoted Hughes fans ran in packs, and they were the first recognize his promise and promise. In W. Jason Miller’s “Langston Hughes: Critical Lives,” he traces the beginnings of Hughes’ international stardom, and how it clashed with the hostility he faced back home.
Growing up in America, Hughes had experienced racism firsthand. As he matured as poet and writer, he started looking beyond America’s borders, curious to learn more about how racism impacted different cultures. Between 1924 and his death in 1967, Hughes made trips to places as varied as Italy, Russia, England, Nigeria and Ghana.
During a visit to Cuba in 1930, Hughes met a young Cuban poet named Nicolás Guillén. Hughes had already successfully written dozens of poems inspired by blues music. Over the course of several late-night dinners at Lolita’s restaurant in Havana, Hughes encouraged Guillén to do the same with his home country’s music.
Within days of Hughes’ departure, Guillén started writing poems making use of Cuba’s “son tradition,” a form of dance music. This was a key moment in the development of an artist who would go on to become Cuba’s national poet.
Hughes was also the only figure of the Harlem Renaissance who traveled to Africa. After several trips to the continent, he became determined to promote the work of his African peers — writers like Bloke Modisane and eventual Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka. So in 1960, he edited his anthology African Treasury, which introduced many in the West to some of Africa’s greatest writers.
In countries like Nigeria, Hughes needed no introduction. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, dozens of Hughes’ poems had appeared in the country’s newspapers and journals. After Nigeria elected Nnamdi Azikiwe, its first native governor-general, in 1960, Azikiwe concluded his inaugural by reciting Hughes’ poem “Youth.
When Hughes returned to Ghana and Senegal later in the decade, he was greeted like a superstar. According to biographer Arnold Rampersad, many of his admirers trailed him in the streets of Dakar similar to the way the Beyhive mob Beyonce for autographs.
By the 1960s, Hughes’ works were being translated into Russian, Italian, Swedish and Spanish. But the first scholarly study of his poetry appeared in France. Literary critic Jean Wagner, in Black Poets of the United States, shed light on the talents of Hughes as both a poet and activist. Devoting over 100 pages to Hughes, Wagner noted that African Americans would never “produce a more fiery bard” who was simultaneously “one of the community refusing to stand apart as an individual.”
As the first black writer in the United States to make his living solely by writing, Hughes galvanized emerging writers and poets in Europe, Africa and South America. To them, Hughes represented a critical Western link to other people of color around the world. He was also an exemplar of the jazz and blues music they so revered. As a testament to Hughes’ popularity abroad, it was Venezuela — not the United States — that sought to nominate him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960.
Back in America, Hughes certainly had his admirers, especially among the African American community. But most establishment figures — in politics, in the media and in law enforcement — viewed him as a menace.
As Hughes’ international fame grew, he was being denigrated as a subversive and a communist by the U.S. government. The FBI had him under surveillance since at least 1933, after he had traveled to Russia. Here in the U.S., Hughes call for justice in the Scottsboro cases earned him the ire of then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. adamant calls for justice in the Scottsboro case of 1931 — when eight young black men were falsely accused of raping two white prostitutes — earned him the ire of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Also, his critiques of capitalism didn’t help the ire he stirring here in the U.S. Hoover put together a 550-page file on Hughes that highlighted his poems such as “Goodbye, Christ,” as evidence that he was a communist.
Then, in 1953, Hughes was called to testify before Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who wanted to use Hughes’ previous support of communist causes and his supposedly subversive allegiances to target suspected “reds” in the State Department.
Hughes. The man who was praised by political leaders abroad, was attacked as being un-American by McCarthy’s Senate Subcommittee.
Hughes was understandably conflicted about his native country, and he explored this ambivalence in poems such as “Let America Be America Again:”
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed —
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me)
That last line still resonates for many Black Americans.
Back in Harlem, Hughes wondered what was the cost of broken dreams.
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 explode?
Interestingly, Hughes had ended the first draft of this famous poem with the lines, “or does it atom-like explode / and leave deaths in its wake? Does it disappear / as might smoke somewhere?”
Writing on Aug. 7, 1948, the poet was keenly aware of what had happened only three years prior when nuclear bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Hughes constant battles with disruption at the hands of privileged white men inspired his art, and helped build his international appeal. The writer sympathized with people felt the wrath of American power and politics. Readers of Hughes as well as Baldwin, and Wright were people dealing with fear, and trepidation, and burning desire to change their circumstances.