Langston Hughes: A conscience under siege


VOLUME II: 1941-1967


By Arnold Rampersad

Oxford, 512 pages

Review by Robin Breon for The Globe and Mail, February 18, 1989.

February 1st kicks off Black History Month and is also the birthday of the writer, Langston Hughes (1901-1967). I am pleased to re-publish this review of Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Hughes that has stood the test of time and stands today as the definitive chronicle of the life and times of this major voice within the Harlem Renaissance. 

For readers interested in this period, I would also point to a recent documentary available on PBS entitled, “Zora Neale Hurston – Claiming a Space” that premiered last month. Hurston and Hughes were close friends and the creative tensions that arose between them revealed in Rampersad’s biography as well as the PBS documentary is an interesting insight into the period and the particular difficulties faced by Black artists. The article that follows here has been slightly edited by the author.

The second volume of the biography of Langston Hughes concludes the extraordinary sweep of historical events and personal experiences that formed the life of one of the most compelling writers of the last century.

In the first volume, Arnold Rampersad traced Hughes’ life from his birth in Missouri through a troubled youth stung by racial insults and neglectful parents who went their separate ways early in his life, leaving young Langston in the care of a grandmother. It was from her that this shy, intelligent child received his first understanding of racial pride. The Hughes family was steeped in a tradition of radical abolitionism (an ancestor had fought and died with John Brown at Harper’s Ferry), a legacy that would serve him well in his lifelong commitment to art and social causes.

When he was 18, Hughes was contacted by his father, who had moved to Mexico’ Hughes went to see him in what proved to be a series of unhappy reunions. But the journey had a positive effect – it stimulated the wanderlust within him, an impulse that would guide his life and lead him to encounters with a wide range of writers, patrons and political activists, bridging a historical period through the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties, the Great Depression, the Second World War, the McCarthy witch-hunts of the fifties and the civil rights movement of the sixties.

In this second volume, Rampersad continues to profile Hughes’ friends and associates who strongly influenced his writing, among them Paul Robeson, Ernest Hemingway, Nicolas Guillen (with whom he spent several weeks in besieged Madrid at the height of the Spanish Civil War), Pablo Neruda, Zora Neale Hurston, Jaques Roumain, Aimé Cesaire, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, David Alfaro Siquieros, Kurt Weill, and Ralph Ellison to name a few.

Hughes not only associated with the well known (as well as unknown) artists of his day, but many times was an active emissary on their behalf. He was the first to translate and submit the poems of Guillen, Federico Garcia Lorca and Gabriela Mistral to U.S. publishers. His travels took him to Africa, the West Indies, Europe, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. He chronicled these journeys in two autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956). Of his tour through the Soviet Union in 1932, he remarked that he had never been denied a hotel room or access to the dining car on a train. For a young Black man of his generation, the experience was a revelation.

Because of his uncompromising social conscience, Hughes found himself constantly harassed, but he continued to speak out on the pressing issues of his day. In April, 1943, he gave several talks in Toronto and also delivered one lecture over CBC radio, in which he spoke about the war as “a fight for freedom… the preservation of freedom and the extension of freedom against the doctrine of Nordic supremacy, and against the theory that might makes right.” 

Photo credit Carl Van Vechten courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress

Hughes was in constant financial difficulty with various publishers, editors and theatrical producers, who at various times refused manuscripts, withheld royalties and generally came forward with less in the way of advances than they were paying their white writers. His play Mulatto was changed beyond recognition by an unscrupulous producer who felt it needed more sensationalism and violence before it could be produced on Broadway. On another occasion, when he was badly in need of money, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, usually known for its progressive sympathies, suggested that Hughes give up royalty payments in perpetuity for his novel, Not Without Laughter, in exchange for an advance of $250.

During the emerging civil rights movement, Hughes found himself criticized by radical black nationalists for not being militant enough. He refused to conform either to the strident anti-communism of the day (expressed by such writers as Richard Wright, John Dos Passos and others) or to the New Left rhetoric of the poet, LeRoi Jones (Amari Baraka).

When it came to articulating principles, he pushed his colleagues to reach higher, and ultimately to see more clearly: “If one may ascribe a prime function to any creative writing, it is I think, to affirm life, to yea-say the excitement of living in relation to the vast rhythms of the universe of which we are a part… one of our aims, it seems to me, should be to gather the strengths of our people in Africa and the Americas into a tapestry of words as strong as the bronzes of Benin, the memories of Songhay and Mele, the war cry of Chaka, the beat of the blues, and the Uhuru of African freedom, and give it to the world with pride and love.”

Although outwardly Hughes exuded warmth and friendliness, inside he harbored pain and gnawing insecurity. Running throughout both volumes of this biography is the question of Hughes’ sexuality; there is no lasting liaison with any partner. Hughes’ circle of friends included numerous openly gay men, which leads Rampersad to pursue the question as to whether Hughes was homosexual.

It is a legitimate question, but without an easy answer. As to the absence of any long-term romantic relationship, the reason might well have been revealed in Hughes’ lifestyle. Hughes was a wanderer, constantly on the road, and with that freedom came a certain loneliness that never left him, in spite of his many friendships and acquaintances. In any case, as for that particular aspect of his life, this very public man quietly and discreetly closed the door.

Hughes’ work is an eloquent testimony to the legacy of the African American people that ranges from poetry through autobiographies and numerous plays to novels and books for young people. Many of his titles are now out of print, but I hope that the publication of this biography will stimulate interest in reviving them.

To say that Arnold Rampersad’s quintessential use of descriptive prose fulfills his mission as a biographer woefully understates his contribution. As a writer, Rampersad is able not only to chronicle lives and events but also to elicit the ambiance of various historical periods. As a critic, he is able to offer meaningful and informed interpretations of Langston Hughes’ work as it relates to the events and personalities that surrounded him in life and still have much to say to us today. 

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