Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by Christopher C. DeSantis

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
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Critical Essay by Christopher C. DeSantis

SOURCE: "Rage, Repudiation, and Endurance: Langston Hughes's Radical Writings," in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 31-9.

In the following essay, DeSantis reveals the ways racial injustice and violence influenced Hughes's writings in the 1930s and 1940s.

In The Big Sea Langston Hughes laments the close of the 1920s and the first years of the 1930s as the end of the period known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement of international significance which generated an outpouring of African American art, literature, and criticism. The final chapters of Hughes's autobiography strike a tone of sadness, markedly different from the lively prose describing the writer's early years in vibrant Harlem. Hughes writes: "The generous 1920s were over. And my twenties almost over. I had four hundred dollars and a gold medal." It is fitting that Hughes chose to mention his financial status in closing. With the Depression looming darkly over America, the hands of patrons who sustained many artists during the Harlem Renaissance were withdrawn. The prizes offered to promising writers by African American journals were fewer, and the stipends for submissions were of lesser amounts. Nevertheless, armed with the four hundred dollars that came with the 1931 Harmon Award ("Four hundred dollars! I had never had a job that paid more than twenty-two dollars a week."), Hughes scoffed at the national economic crisis: "… I'd finally and definitely made up my mind to continue being a writer—and to become a professional writer, making my living from writing."

While Hughes was able to adhere to his goal of writing for a living, writing was certainly not the most pressing thing on his mind. The end of the Harlem Renaissance saw an increase in racial violence and economic hardship for the black masses in America. The beatings, lynchings and daily humiliation of segregation which African Americans suffered in the South and elsewhere outraged Hughes. As a member of the African American community Hughes accepted the responsibility to speak out against these injustices in his writing and to fight them in his daily life, at whatever cost to his own personal welfare. The body of writing which resulted from these turbulent years contains the most searing, ironic, and powerful poetry and prose that Hughes ever wrote. Often overlooked by readers and critics, Hughes's radical writings assume great significance when viewed in the context of the ever-increasing racial tensions we are witnessing in the 1990s. It is my intent here to re-introduce some of these works to readers and critics, lest we forget the powerful and far-reaching significance of Langston Hughes's famous question, "What happens to a dream deferred?"

The Scottsboro incident of 1931 set the tone for much of Hughes's radical poetry and prose that would emerge in the following years. The incident involved nine African American teenagers who were jailed in Scottsboro, Alabama, for allegedly raping two white prostitutes in an open railroad freight car. After a trial in Scottsboro, eight of the youths were sentenced to the electric chair and the ninth to life imprisonment. In I Wonder as I Wander Hughes reveals that Ruby Bates, one of the white women involved in the incident, later recanted her rape testimony and admitted that she fabricated the entire story. Arnold Rampersad notes in his biography of Hughes that whereas the NAACP hesitated to react to the indictment against the Scottsboro youths, "the International Labor Defense, the legal defense arm of the Communist Party, threw its energies into appealing the case and mobilizing public support for the defendants." Taking the Scottsboro incident very much to heart, Hughes embraced the Communist Party as the only entity which seemed able, or at least willing, to help the nine youths. Though Hughes never formally joined the Communist Party, Rampersad found evidence to suggest that he served as honorary president of the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, an organization formed by the Communist Party to "bring the race problem into sharper relief."

While Hughes was physically active lecturing and fund-raising on behalf of the youths involved in the Scottsboro Case, he also took a firm stand on the incident in his writing. Two searing essays responded to the call of the nine teenagers imprisoned in the State Penitentiary at Kilby, Alabama. The first, "Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes," strikes a tone of disgust and defiance as Hughes poses a challenge to the African American community at large and specifically to the black leaders of the NAACP involved with the incident:

But back to the dark millions—black and half-black, brown and yellow, with a gang of white fore-parents—like me. If these twelve million Negro Americans don't raise such a howl that the doors of Kilby Prison shake until the 9 youngsters come out …, then let Dixie justice (blind and syphilitic as it may be) take its course, and let Alabama's Southern gentlemen amuse themselves burning 9 young black boys till they're dead in the State's electric chair. (Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes ends the essay in mock prayer, signifying the bitter irony of the Scottsboro Case in particular and the hypocritical structures of the southern white social order in general: "Dear Lord, I never knew until now that white ladies (the same color as Southern gentlemen) traveled in freight trains … Did you, world?… And who ever heard of raping a prostitute?"

Hughes's second essay on the Scottsboro incident, "Brown America in Jail: Kilby," was written after Hughes paid a visit to the Scottsboro youths while on a speaking tour through the South. Though eager to cheer the young men with some of his more humorous poems, Hughes notes in I Wonder as I Wander that the atmosphere in the prison had a feeling of desperation: "The youngest boy, Andy Wright, smiled. The others hardly moved their heads. Then the minister prayed, but none of the boys kneeled or even changed positions for his prayer. No heads bowed." The essay is marked throughout by a tone of profound sadness and bitterness. Although one of the women involved in the Scottsboro incident recanted her rape testimony under oath, the youths remained in the "death house" of the prison. Where Hughes's first Scottsboro essay struck a tone of defiance and projected hope for justice, the second essay conveys the seeming futility of challenging a brutal and apparently hopeless racial situation in Alabama:

For a moment the fear came: even for me, a Sunday morning visitor, the doors might never open again. WHITE guards held the keys. (The judge's chair protected like Pilate's.) And I'm only a nigger. Nigger. Niggers. Hundreds of niggers in Kilby Prison. Black, brown, yellow, near-white niggers. The guards, WHITE. Me—a visiting nigger (Good Morning Revolution)

Although the tone of the essay is decidedly desperate, Hughes recognizes the Communist Party and a number of revolutionary writers for their interest in helping to change the racial situation in America. Through sarcasm Hughes drives the point home, further strengthening his ties with people and organizations which would prove to shape the nature of his writings in the years preceding the McCarthy hearings:

(Keep silent, world. The State of Alabama washes its hands.) Eight brown boys condemned to death. No proven crime! Farce of a trial. Lies. Laughter. Mob. Music. Eight poor niggers make a country holiday. (Keep silent, Germany, Russia, France, young China, Gorki, Thomas Mann, Romain Rolland, Theodore Dreiser. Pilate washes his hands. Listen Communists, don't send any more cablegrams to the Governor of Alabama. Don't send any more telegrams to the Supreme Court. What's the matter? What's all this excitement about, over eight young niggers? Let the law wash its hands in peace.)

Although at the time of the Scottsboro incident Hughes had achieved a certain degree of fame and was traveling around the country on a successful speaking tour, he realized that celebrity status was no protection against the bloody wrath of racial discrimination. A decade after the Scottsboro case, this proved equally true. "Roland Hayes Beaten (Georgia: 1942)," was written after the world-famous singer walked into a shoe store in Georgia, his home state, and was brutally beaten by a white store clerk. The beating occurred in 1942, during a war which was supposedly being fought to rid the world of racial supremacy, and in which many black soldiers saw active duty. In the poem Hughes addresses the theme of African Americans rising up against the oppression of whites, a theme that would become prevalent in much of his post-Scottsboro writings. He does not focus on details of Hayes's bloody beating here. The power of the poem lies in the juxtaposition of humanity and nature. The comparison plays off of the stereotypical meek, humble, and accommodating nature of African Americans:

    Negroes,
    Sweet and docile,
    Meek, humble, and kind:
    Beware the day
    They change their minds!
 
    Wind
    In the cotton fields,
    Gentle breeze:
    Beware the hour
    It uproots trees!
 
    (Selected Poems)

In the poem Hughes alludes to the dispossessed slaves in the Southern fields (the wind; transient and dynamic) and to the plantation overseers (the trees; established and static). Through this analogy Hughes suggests that the same oppression and brutality which resulted in slave revolts exists still, and will be dealt with in a similar manner. Fury will not sprout from the meek and humble, but rather from the oppressed, the brutalized and the displaced. Hughes's message is clear, and the clarity gains passion and fury when we consider other radical writings—often overlooked by readers and critics—written during his distinguished career.

In a scathing essay addressed to the leaders and educators of African American colleges throughout the nation, Hughes asserted that white people could no longer be blamed exclusively for the propagation of Jim Crow ethics and practices. "Cowards from the Colleges," first published in The Crisis in 1934, marked a turning point in Hughes's writing. Though he still concerned himself with documenting folk mannerisms, patterns of speech, and ways of life of common black people, Hughes perceived in the educated black elite an invidious pattern of behavior that seemed to encourage rather than ameliorate the social codes that served to keep the African American community in the margins of American society: "To combine these charges very simply: Many of our institutions apparently are not trying to make men and women of their students at all—they are doing their best to produce spineless Uncle Toms, uninformed, and full of mental and moral evasions" (Good Morning Revolution). In backing up his assertions, Hughes cites two incidents in which blatant racism was glossed over by college administrators worried about the possible danger of offending white patrons of the college. The first incident concerned Juliette Derricotte, the dean of women at Fisk University, who died after an automobile accident because she was refused treatment by white Georgia hospitals. The second incident involved the football coach of Alabama's A&M Institute at Normal, who was beaten to death by a mob in Birmingham while attempting to see his team play. Outraged by the two incidents which occurred during the same weekend, students at Hampton, where Hughes was lecturing at the time, attempted to band together and protest the racial violence. Citing the school's policy of "moving slowly and quietly, and with dignity," Major Brown, the dean of men at Hampton, and an African American, effectively killed the protest. Hughes writes:

On and on he talked. When he had finished, the students knew quite clearly that they could not go ahead with their protest meeting. (The faculty had put up its wall.) They knew they would face expulsion and loss of credits if they did so. The result was that the Hampton students held no meeting of protest over the mob-death of their own alumnus, nor the death on the road … of one of the race's finest young women. The brave and manly spirit of that little group … was crushed by the official voice of Hampton speaking through its Negro Major Brown. (Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes's anger at some of the black leaders and institutions of higher learning did not, of course, go unexpressed in his poetry. Although some of the intellectuals in Harlem during the Renaissance found books such as The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew disturbing because of their glamorization of the black working class, those texts did not offend nearly so much as the more radical verse Hughes wrote in the 1930s. "To Certain Negro Leaders," a poem first published in New Masses, addresses in sparse and angry language the bitter frustrations Hughes attempted to document in "Cowards from the Colleges":

     Voices crying in the wilderness,
     At so much per word
     From the white folks:
     "Be meek and humble,
     All you niggers,
     And do not cry
     Too loud."
 
     (Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes cryptically posits here the dangerous ramifications white patronage and philanthropy pose to African American institutions. Money becomes a shackle to the receiving institutions; the maker of the gift holds the power to tighten it at will. Hughes arrived at these conclusions through his bitter experiences with Charlotte Mason during the Harlem Renaissance. When Hughes expressed a desire to try different things with his poetry, Mason's patronage was quickly, and finally, withdrawn.

The hypocrisy which seemed to fester behind philanthropic fronts troubled Hughes long after the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the largesse of wealthy patrons who supported it. Addressing the first American Writers' Congress in 1935, Hughes called on African American writers to expose these hypocrisies through their novels, stories, poems, and articles:

The lovely grinning face of Philanthropy—which gives a million dollars to a Jim Crow school, but not one job to a graduate of that school; which builds a Negro hospital with second-rate equipment, then commands black patients and student-doctors to go there whether they will or no; or which, out of the kindness of its heart, erects yet another separate, segregated, shut-off, Jim Crow Y.M.C.A. (Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes believed in the transformative powers of the written word, and cautioned writers about using their art for purposes other than social change. This rhetoric, of course, was first espoused by Hughes during the Harlem Renaissance. In "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in 1926, Hughes called for the formation of a "racial art" which would lead to the creation of a distinct black aesthetic. He denounced writers who believed their art came first, their race second. More significant here, Hughes believed in a social force inherent in art, and considered it a basic duty of black artists to channel this force toward social change. At his speech before the first American Writers' Congress in 1935, Hughes called on black writers to fulfill this basic duty:

Sure, the moon still shines over Harlem. Shines over Scottsboro. Shines over Birmingham, too, I reckon. Shines over Cordie Cheek's grave, down South. Write about the moon if you want to. Go ahead. This is a free country. But there are certain very practical things American Negro writers can do. And must do. There's a song that says, "the time ain't long." That song is right. Something has got to change in America—and change soon. We must help that change to come. The moon's still shining as poetically as ever, but all the stars on the flag are dull. (And the stripes, too).

(Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes's poems of this period, while adhering to the basic artistic ideals established in the 1920s, were far removed from the optimism generated by the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. With the Depression came more hunger, more oppression, and more racial violence. These facets of American life were certainly not new to Hughes, but there seemed during this period to be something more evil and more dangerous with which African Americans had to contend. Not content to see the African American community merely endure, Hughes felt that revolution was a necessary end:

      I am so tired of waiting,
      Aren't you,
      For the world to become good
      And beautiful and kind?
      Let us take a knife
      And cut the world in two-
      And see what worms are eating
      At the rind.
 
      (Good Morning Revolution)

With Hughes's disgust at the generally bleak state of life in America came a profound mistrust of religion, particularly directed at those people who used Christianity as a cloak behind which to hide their oppressive actions. "Goodbye, Christ" most explicitly conveys Hughes's attitude at the time. Where the call for revolution was softened by imagery in "Tired," here Hughes unleashes words of anger and bitterness which make clear his political posture:

      Listen, Christ,
      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 the preachers've
      Made too much money from it.
      They've sold you to too many.
 
      (Good Morning Revolution)

In the poem Hughes examines, or rather obliterates, the tenets set forth in a supposedly Christian country. If a majority of Americans do indeed call themselves Christians, why then do we witness so much suffering, so much oppression? During the time in which the poem was written Hughes made a journey to the Soviet Union and saw Socialism working, whereas in America, Christianity had failed. Though resources in the Soviet Union were meager, Hughes notes the fact that "white and black, Asiatic and European, Jew and Gentile stood alike as citizens on an equal footing protected from racial inequalities by the law" (Good Morning Revolution). Hughes thus called for a rethinking of dominant American beliefs and an acceptance of the tenets of Marxism:

      Goodbye,
      Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah,
      Beat it on away from here now.
      Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
      A real guy named
      Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker
      ME….
 
      (Good Morning Revolution)

The trip to the Soviet Union obviously had a profound affect on much of Hughes's writing during this period. A little more than a decade after the visit, Hughes wrote a series of articles addressing his experiences. These pieces appeared in Hughes's weekly "Here To Yonder" column in the Chicago Defender, an influential African American newspaper. Though the anger and bitterness evident in his 1930s writings lost intensity as Hughes moved into the 1940s, his vision of humanity remained unchanged. Indeed, the first article in the series deals mainly with the humanitarian aspects of the Soviet Union:

There is one country in the world that has NO Jim Crow of any sort, NO UNEMPLOYMENT of any sort, NO PROSTITUTION or demeaning of the human personality through poverty, NO LACK OF EDUCATIONAL FACILITIES for all of its young people, and NO LACK OF SICK CARE or dental care for everybody. That country is the Soviet Union. (Good Morning Revolution)

Hughes was not completely unrealistic or idealistic about the Soviet Union, and was quick to point out that it was not a paradise. He recognized the meagerness of resources to be a serious problem, but found the Soviet way of life and governance to be ultimately superior to that in America: "[The] steps toward an earthly paradise reach higher today on the soil of the Soviet Union than they do anywhere else in this troubled world. And the future of the Soviet Union is based on more concrete modern social achievements than that of any other existing state." Hughes bases this assertion on many factors, one of the most important being the position of women in the Soviet Union. He was very much impressed that prostitution had been wiped out, linking the demeaning profession to capitalism and greed: "In many great cities of the capitalist world, I have seen poor girls of high school age selling their favors as cheaply as a pair of stockings…. During the American depression, the streets of our big cities were full of such women. Poverty, the economic root of prostitution, is gone in the Soviet Union" (86). Where the general welfare of the people in the Soviet Union seemed superior to that in America, however, Hughes found that the Soviet people did not enjoy the freedom of speech which was largely taken for granted in the United States. Heads of government were assured of not being ridiculed publicly, for the price of denouncing a public official was often a rather stiff prison sentence. Hughes both lamented and praised the Soviet newspapers for not printing crime news or racially derogatory statements: "Nice juicy murders and big black brutes are both missing from their pages. Soviet headlines are not as exciting in a sensational way as ours."

Despite its faults, however, Hughes saw in the Soviet Union a degree of hope which seemed sadly absent in America. While the African American community was still suffering the same violence and oppression it had endured for years, followers of the Soviet doctrines seemed infinitely better off. Hughes addresses this idea in "Lenin," one of his last poems to endorse Communism:

      Lenin walks around the world.
      Frontiers cannot bar him.
      Neither barracks nor barricades impede.
      Nor does barbed wire scar him.
 
      Lenin walks around the world.
      Black, brown, and white receive him.
      Language is no barrier.
      The strangest tongues believe him.
 
      Lenin walks around the world.
      The sun sets like a scar.
      Between the darkness and the dawn
      There rises a red star.
 
      (Good Morning Revolution)

Although Hughes ultimately abandoned his support of Communism shortly after "Lenin" was written, his love for the Soviet Union and its people remained. Arnold Rampersad has noted that Hughes's renunciation of Communism did not result in a break with all organizations on the Left, and that Hughes continued to support groups that fell under the scrutiny of Joseph McCarthy's investigations. Retaining these ties, it seems, made Hughes amply suspect. On March 26, 1953, Hughes appeared before McCarthy's Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations to explain and account for this "anti-American," radical past. At the hearing Hughes offered a prepared statement which effectively repudiated his radical writings and saved him from serious charges by the Committee. When asked by Roy Cohn, the head examiner, to describe the time period in which he sympathized with the Soviet form of government and when that period ended, Hughes replied:

There was no abrupt ending, but I would say, that roughly the beginnings of my sympathies with Soviet ideology were coincident with the Scottsboro case, the American depression, and that they ran through for some 10 or 12 years or more, certainly up to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and perhaps, in relation to some aspects of the Soviet ideology, further, because we were allies, as you know, with the Soviet Union during the war. So some aspects of my writing would reflect that relationship, that war relationship.

When further questioned by Cohn as to what exactly caused his change in ideology, Hughes offered an answer which amply satisfied the Committee:

The Nazi-Soviet Pact was, of course, very disillusioning … and then further evidences of, shall we say, spreading imperialist aggression. My own observations in 1931–32, as a writer, which remained with me all the time, of the lack of freedom of expression in the Soviet Union for writers, which I never agreed with before I went there or afterward—those things gradually began to sink in deeper and deeper. And then, in our own country, there has been, within the last 10 years, certainly within the war period, a very great increase in the rate of acceleration of improvement in race relations.

In closing, Hughes was asked if he was in any way mistreated by the staff or the committee involved with the investigation. His reply could only have served to warm the hearts of the very people who had caused him much pain: "I must say that I was agreeably surprised at the courtesy and friendliness with which I was received…. [Senator Dirksen] was, I thought, most gracious and in a sense helpful in defining for me the area of this investigation; and the young men who had to interrogate me, of course, had to interrogate me."

Rampersad has demonstrated that by cooperating with McCarthy and the Committee, Hughes was choosing the lesser of two evils: "He could defy the body and destroy much of his effectiveness in the black world. Or he could co-operate, draw the disapproval, even the contempt, of the white left, but keep more or less intact the special place he had painstakingly carved out within the black community." Given Hughes's love for his community which he had held since he began writing, Rampersad suggests that the choice was perhaps easy to make. Although Hughes repudiated a body of writing that was so important to a turbulent period in his life, the choice allowed him to continue doing what he loved best. After the hearing he resumed the admirable task of making a living as a writer, perhaps subconsciously secure in the fact that his writings, including the ones he apparently repudiated, were tucked safely away in the archives of universities across the country.

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