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Critical Essay by Edward Mullen
SOURCE: "Langston Hughes in Mexico and Cuba," in Latin American Literature and Arts, Vol. 47, Fall, 1993, pp. 23-27.
In the following essay, Mullen argues that Hughes's experiences in Mexico and Cuba had a significant influence on his writing and identity.
In his introduction to Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (Duke University Press, 1990), Gustavo Pérez Firmat underscores the fact that the field of inter-American literary studies is something of a terra incognita. The occasion of the quincentenary, in which so much writing has been directed toward the theme of the identity of the Americas, seems a particularly appropriate juncture to fill in some of the open critical space to which Pérez Firmat refers. The shaping of the American identity has been marked in no small degree by a relatively constant set of discoveries carried out by writers from both sides of the border, from the period of Conquest to the present day. It is no surprise that Robert E. Spiller, in his classic The Cycle of American Literature, credits Columbus's letter of 1493 to the Royal Treasurer of Spain describing his discovery as the earliest genuinely American text. In fact, a list of North American writers who have traveled to Latin America reads like a veritable Who's Who of North American literature: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, and William Styron.
To this impressive list should be added the name of Langston Hughes. It is one of those curious paradoxes that in many ways define North American literature that the best known, if not the most prolific black American writer of the twentieth century, was more familiar in Latin America at the time of his death than he was in his native country. The case of Hughes serves not only as a paradigm of the African American literary experience, which has been deeply shaped by influences outside of the United States (one recalls the cases of Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Chester Himes, all of whom flourished in Paris), but also demonstrates the deeply rooted interconnections among writers of the black diaspora.
Much as did his spiritual compadre, Manuel Zapata Olivella, Hughes spent much of his life as a writer, both searching for and sharing his sense of selfhood and blackness with other writers. It was, in particular, first his travels to Mexico and then to Cuba that were to prove most significant in his formation as a writer and that would equip him with both the linguistic skills and the personal connections to share his developing sense of a genuine black folk aesthetic. Between 1907 and 1934, for example, Hughes journeyed to Mexico four times, accumulating almost two years in Toluca and Mexico City. These travels were crucial in shaping his notions of race and class—elements so essential in his poetics. Ironically, his discovery of Spanish American literature was due, in part, to the fact that his father, an embittered Afro-American attorney, had selected Mexico as his place of self-imposed exile. James Hughes—aloof and uncaring toward his son—was particularly contemptuous of black American culture. Langston's first trip to Mexico, which took place when he was five, was a fleeting experience, marked only by an earthquake, and recalled in his autobiography, The Big Sea. He returned in 1919 to spend a summer with his father, a summer, he wrote in the book, that was "the most miserable I've ever known," spent in brooding isolation in Toluca. Lured by the prospect of securing money to attend Columbia University, Hughes again returned to see his father in the summer of 1920. This was a period of increasing racial awareness for the young Hughes, who had read W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and was aware of Marcus Garvey's "Back to Africa" movement. It was en route to Mexico City that he composed his most often anthologized poem. "A Negro Speaks of Rivers." After crossing the border, he penned the following telling comments in his journal: "But here nothing is barred from me. I am among my own people, for … Mexico is a brown man's country. Do you blame them for fearing a 'gringo' invasion, with its attendant horror of colored hatred.
Hughes spent the year teaching English in a small business college, learning Spanish, and writing about his experiences. From a literary standpoint, it was an extremely productive period in his life. He published three short prose sketches in a journal recently founded by Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, The Brownies Book. "Mexican Games," his first essay published in an American magazine, appeared in January 1921. It was followed in April by "In a Mexican City," a description of market day in Toluca, and in December by "Up to the Crater of an Old Volcano," an account of a trip to Xinantécatl, near Toluca. The same month Crisis published a very brief note, "The Virgin of Guadalupe."
During his weekend trips to Mexico City, he met the young poet Carlos Pellicer, who was a member of an important literary coterie known as the Contemporáneos ("Contemporaries"). Pellicer had a deep affinity with Hughes and his poetry. He was, at the time of their meeting, himself actively engaged as a writer in the quest for a genuine Mexican folk aesthetic based on the rediscovery of the country's indigenous past. Pellicer would be one of the few Mexican poets to write about Africa. "Surgente fin" ("Surging End"), a poem written in the 1960s, deals with the primordial ties between Africa and Mexico. It was through Pellicer that Hughes met the playwright and poet Xavier Villaurrutia (1902–1950) and the essayist Salvador Novo (1904–1973). Villaurrutia published translations of four of Hughes's poems in the important journal Contemporáneos in the fall of 1931 and wrote poems about racial tensions in the United States, "North Carolina Blues," which he dedicated to Hughes. Novo also identified Hughes in an essay on Afro-American poetry—one of the first such assessments of its kind—in the same issue of Contemporáneos.
When Hughes returned to Mexico in December 1934 to settle his father's estate, he was already an established writer. By now, he had published the basic document of his aesthetic, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in the Nation (1926) and two major books of poetry. The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927)—which would find particular resonance in Latin America. This, his final extended stay in Mexico, lasted some six months, during which he met writers and artists such as Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Rufino Tamayo, and Nellie Campobello.
He had become a familiar figure among the Mexican literati, who were fascinated with both the content and form of his poetry and had begun to view him as a genuine spokesman for the black proletariat. Translations of his poetry and prose were to appear in Mexico with regularity up until the time of his death. Mexico was a place special to Hughes, but unlike writers such as Katherine Anne Porter and Malcolm Lowry, whose experiences in Mexico inspired much of their writing, apart from his early stories for children, which he had published in the Brownies Book, he wrote little about Mexico. Hughes's Mexican audience, while almost always appreciative, often misread him. Salvador Novo felt that his blues poems would soon be subsumed into a more universalist aesthetic, while Rafael Lozano, one of his earliest translators, cast him as the embodiment of a black artistic primitiveness. The thesis that primitive peoples (translate: blacks and Native Americans) were more directly in touch with nature and their feelings was widespread during the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, Lozano wrote: "Langston Hughes's poetry is highly spontaneous…. It is a primitive composition, like all of the poetry of his race, which expresses itself, like jazz music, with his own slightly syncopated rhythm.
While his contact with Mexico certainly had a profound shaping influence on Hughes, it would be his travels to the Caribbean and Cuba, in particular, that would prove to be most significant. Hughes traveled to Cuba on three separate occasions, in 1927, 1930, and 1931. His first trip took place in July 1927, when he went to Havana as a crew member on a freighter. The trip, a brief and unpleasant one, was later recalled in his short story "Power White Faces" which deals with racial discrimination in the brothels of Havana. In February 1930, he spent two weeks in Havana in search of a black composer to collaborate with him on an opera commissioned by his patron, Charlotte Mason. He arrived on February 25, 1930, with a letter of introduction from Miguel Covarrubias, whom he had met in Harlem, and who had done illustrations for The Weary Blues, and went directly to meet José Antonio Fernández de Castro, the editor of the influential newspaper El Diario de la Marina. The latter, a white patron of the arts, who had a strong interest in black culture, had published the first Spanish translation of a poem by Hughes ("I, Too") in the Cuban journal Social in 1928.
In March 1930 Fernández de Castro published an essay "Introducing Langston Hughes" in the Revista de la Habana. The Cuban's comments, essentially a paraphrase of Carl Van Vechten's preface to The Weary Blues, "Introducing Langston Hughes to the Reader," stress in particular Hughes's sense of racial pride:
In the lyrical works of L.H.—as in those of Countee Cullen. Walter F. White. Jessie Fauset. Claude McKay, to name only the most representative black writers in the United States—a vigorous racial pride is evident, a combativeness unknown until the present by the intellectual writers of that race. His technique is modern and with this sensitivity he achieves very personal touches which make him stand out as unique in the complicated panorama of contemporary poetic production in the United States. L.H., during his recent visit to Cuba, was received and entertained by representatives of our young intellectuals, and by distinguished and important black Cubans.
Fernández de Castro introduced Hughes to a group of Afro-Cuban writers—Nicolás Guillén, Reginio Pedroso, and Gustavo Urrutia—who toured the poet around Havana's centers of black culture. While Hughes was dazzled by the son, an African-based song-dance form, his hosts were equally startled by his questions about race and the social status of blacks. Guillén interviewed Hughes and published the text of his "Conversation with Langston Hughes" in the literary supplement "Ideales de una raza" of the newspaper Diario de la Marina on March 9, 1930. This meeting led to a long and fruitful friendship which was later renewed in Spain during the Civil War. The interview is an important document, inasmuch as it signals the deep affinities between the two in regard to their attitudes toward black artistic consciousness. Here Hughes confesses that it was during his early visit to Africa that he had become conscious of his role as a poet: "I knew then that I had to be their friend, their voice, their poet. My only ambition is to be the poet of the blacks, the black poet." Guillén replied: "I understand. And I feel that the poem with which Hughes opens his first volume of verse, rises from the depths of my own soul: I am black, black as the night, black as the depths of my Africa.'"
As critics have been careful to point out, Hughes's meeting with Guillén was to have a profound effect on the young Guillén, who was still in a formative stage as a writer. The early 1930s was a critical period in Caribbean letters as writers struggled with the fundamental problematic of the time: how to express the region's unique cultural heritage within the framework of a universalist Eurocentric aesthetic. While white writers such as Ramón Guirao and Juan Marinello wanted to posit black culture as an alternative to white neocolonialism, their project failed, projecting at best a picturesque but external view of black culture. One month after Hughes's departure, Guillén published eight powerful dialect poems under the title Motivos de son (Son Motifs) in the Diario de la Marina. Similar in theme to Hughes's The Weary Blues and making strong use of neo-African musical forms, they were the object of immediate and often vitriolic critical reaction. In a letter to Hughes. Guillén said that they had "created a scandal," while Gustavo Urrutia wrote that Guillén was writing "the best kind of Negro poetry we ever had; indeed, we had no Negro poems at all in Cuba before the new work." The poems were later translated by Hughes and appeared in Cuba Libre: Poems by Nicolás Guillén (1948), the first book-length translation of Guillén into English.
In the spring of 1931, with the money he had received from the Harmon Gold Award for Literature, Hughes made a trip to Cuba and Haiti, accompanied by his friend, Zell Ingram. By now, he was a well-known figure in Cuban artistic circles. In fact, Hughes had already published a short note on the black Cuban sculptor, Ramos Blanco in Opportunity a year earlier and had done translations of poetry by Guillén and Pedroso and of an essay by Urrutia. As with his earlier experiences in Mexico, Hughes captured his impressions of Cuba both in poetry and prose. For example, he published a somewhat stylized reflection on Cuban high life called "Havana Dreams" in Opportunity in June 1933 and dedicated several pages of I Wonder as I Wander, describing racial discrimination in Havana. He also wrote a short story "Little Old Spy," in which he depicted the racist policies of the Machado dictatorship. In May 1931, Hughes published "To the Little Fort, San Lázaro, on the Ocean Front Havana" in New Masses. A bitter attack on economic imperialism, the poem prefigures the radical assault on society that Guillén would undertake in West Indies Ltd. (1934) and, at the same time, vaguely evokes the poetry of Hughes's Mexican friend Carlos Pellicer.
While Mexico and Cuba were important points of contact for Langston Hughes, they are only pieces of a larger literary mosaic to which Hughes is linked. He spent time, for example, in Spain during the Civil War and was an accomplished translator of Federico García Lorca and Gabriela Mistral. In the area of hemispheric literary interrelationships, however, he remains a singular figure, one who was able to convey a sense of what it meant to be black in America to a white Hispanic audience while supplying a voice to Afro-Hispanic writers (Guillén, Zapata Olivella) to articulate their own vision of black Hispanic culture. It is no coincidence that Hughes appears as a character in Manuel Zapata Olivella's epic novel Changó, el gran putas (Changó, the Big Mother,… 1983), which is perhaps the most important work written about the black experience in the New World to date by an Afro-Hispanic writer.
This section contains 2,459 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)