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Nancy Chinn 7 March 2007 Racial Leftist Politics in the Poetry of Langston Hughes Langston Hughes’s use of blues and jazz rhythms in his poetry, and his emphasis on his experience of black America tie him to the New Negro aesthetic of the 1920s. However, the optimism of the New Negro movement and its hope in the ability of art to gain social and economic equality for the oppressed Negro race faded in the face of the Depression (Jemie 138). Though the cultural movement had increased awareness and acceptance of black music, poetry, and literature, it had not adequately dealt with the economic realities of the situation, nor had it infiltrated deeply into the South, where Jim Crow discrimination still held sway. Some other solution was needed. Entering the 1930s, Hughes and many others found hope in the racial and economic equality promised by communism. Hughes himself never joined the Communist Party, and would gradually distance himself from radical politics in the following decades, but his work of the 1930s reveals a strong commitment to leftist ideals. The communist movement provided an avenue to unite the cause of the oppressed American Negro with the cause of other oppressed peoples around the world—especially the dark-skinned Africans, Indians, MiddleEasterners, and even Chinese, but also struggling working-class whites. Through revolutionary poetry, Hughes connected his racially-inflected concerns to a global purpose and a global audience.
Stone 2 The Scottsboro incident in 1931 provided a huge impetus for the Communist Party among the Negro community. Two white women accused eight black men, aged twelve to nineteen, of raping them—all were stowaways on a freight train going through Scottsboro, Alabama. Though doctors denied any evidence of rape, and circumstantial evidence cleared several of the boys, they were imprisoned and underwent a series of trials which condemned some to life imprisonment and others to death. While the NAACP dragged its feet, the legal branch of the Communist Party (known as the International Labor Defense, or ILD) took the case, increasing public awareness of both the case itself and the communist role in the boys’ defense (Rampersad 216). Hughes would publish a one-act play and several poems in response to the Scottsboro trial, and clearly align himself with the leftist cause. In “Scottsboro,” Hughes issues a globally and historically inclusive call to freedom fighters to rise up and defend the Scottsboro boys. Among those he names are Jesus Christ, John Brown of the 1859 Harper’s Ferry revolt, Jean-Jacques Dessalines of the successful Haitian slave revolution, Vladimir Lenin, Gandhi, and Augusto Cesar Sandino, a contemporary Nicaraguan leader (142)1. In the breadth of his appeal, Hughes situates the Scottsboro incident in an ongoing worldwide fight for justice, freedom, and equality. The communist world responded to the events in kind, holding benefits and rallies to support the condemned boys and warmly welcoming Hughes to Moscow in 1932. He and several other black Americans were invited to Russia to make a film aimed at exposing and alleviating racism. Though the film was never made, it provided the
All references to Hughes’s poetry are taken from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, and indicated by the page number in that edition.
Stone 3 opportunity for Hughes to travel throughout the Soviet Union and see first-hand the advances made in the treatment of non-whites. Several of Hughes’s most radical poems were published during his travels in the Soviet Union. “Good Morning Revolution” attacks a capitalist leader characterized both by his wealth (“eats swell,” “owns a lotta houses,” “goes vacationin’”) and his anti-labor, anti-justice activities (“breaks strikes,” “runs politics,” “bribes police”). The narrator contrasts himself with his portrait of the boss: But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat. Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter. Me, I ain’t never known security— All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth, Hand to mouth. (162-163) The content of these lines could be said by any member of the working class or poor, black or white; even the diction is borderline. As Robert Shulman points out, the narrator does not have to be read as black, but the rhythm and repetition of the lines is reminiscent of jazz (274). Later in the poem, Hughes uses vernacular interjections to counteract the over-seriousness of the communist rhetoric: “We can take everything: […] / Bus lines, telegraphs, radios, / (Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)”; and again: “All the tools of production / (Great day in the morning!)” (163). Through these techniques, Hughes brings Negro rhythms and colloquial speech into the larger context of communist propaganda, creating a poem which both supports the cause of the workers and has a hopeful, lighthearted undertone.
Stone 4 Another poem written in Russia, “Always the Same,” shows even more strongly the expansion of Hughes’s racial outlook to include the oppressed blacks of every nation and unite their cause with proletarian ideals: It is the same everywhere for me: On the docks at Sierra Leone, In the cotton fields of Alabama, In the diamond mines of Kimberley, On the coffee hills of Haiti, The banana lands of Central America, The streets of Harlem, And the cities of Morocco and Tripoli.
Black: Exploited, beaten and robbed […] (165) Harlem is here, but it is just one of seven loci of imperial exploitation of blacks around the world. The solution is to join the communists and fight for freedom: Better that my blood makes one with the blood Of all the struggling workers in the world— […] Until the Red Armies of the International Proletariat Their faces, black, white, olive, yellow, brown, United to raise the blood-red flag that Never will come down! (165-166)
Stone 5 Communism offers a global movement to connect and unify blacks struggling independently, to promise a revolution against “The force that kills, / The power that robs, / And the greed that does not care” (165). Though Hughes is concerned for the working class regardless of color, in “Always the Same” his focus is clearly on the imperalist oppression of blacks. An earlier poem, “Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria,” bitterly satirizes the economic gulf between the wealthy Park Avenue district and the slums around it, a contrast Hughes saw often when visiting his patron at the end of the 1920s. Parodying a Vanity Fair advertisement for the newly remodeled Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Hughes invites “hungry ones,” “roomers,” “evicted families,” “Negroes,” and finally “everybody” to go enjoy the fine amenities of the twenty-eight million dollar hotel. Negroes are the last group of people specifically named, leading Michael Thurston to claim that Hughes “subordinates race to highlight his emphasis on class, poverty, and revolution” (92). The final, most radical section of the poem posits the birth of a “new Christ child of the Revolution,” a “red baby, in the bitter womb of the mob.” Mary is characterized as a “little girl—turned whore / because her belly was too hungry to stand it anymore” (146). This depiction of Mary as an exploited woman begs comparison with the black Mary of “Christ in Alabama,” whose Christ child is a tragic mulatto figure, born of “Mammy of the South” and “White Master above” (143). Though the two poems were not published together, they were both published in leftist periodicals in December, 1931. Reading them together suggests the possibility that the Christ child of the Revolution may be read as black, a “New Red Negro” (Political Plays 47). Hence, even “Waldorf-Astoria,” which seems to nearly forget Harlem, when read in context of Hughes’s contemporary
Stone 6 writings, shows a deep commitment to the economic equality of the black race promised by the Revolution. As the decade wore on, Hughes’s leftist poems continued to reflect global situations, supporting Ethiopia against Mussolini’s onslaught and Republican Spain against Franco’s fascists. In the poems and essays arising from his time as a war correspondent in Spain, the tone is less pro-communist and more anti-fascist—a reflection of Hughes’s own movement away from the left at the end of the 1930s. “Letter from Spain” shows the sad position of a Moorish soldier forced to fight for Franco (“They nabbed him in his land / And made him join the fascist army”) against the very people who would set him and other blacks free: Cause if a free Spain wins this war, The colonies, too, are free— Then something wonderful’ll happen To them Moors as dark as me. (201-202) Hughes found virtually no racial prejudice in Spain during his time there, and worried along with many other Negroes who rushed to join the International Brigades and defend Spain that “if Fascism creeps across Spain, across Europe, and then across the world, there will be no […] decent place left for any Negroes—because Fascism preaches the creed of Nordic supremacy and a world for whites alone” (Good Morning 107). Interestingly, Hughes’s most grandiose statements on his hopes for America are found in one of his more famous, but less radical (and less racial) poems. Arnold Rampersad points out that “Let America Be America Again” was considered by some to be a compromise “written to satisfy others, and not indicative of Langston’s true feeling,”
Stone 7 but that actually “Hughes was drifting away from the far left” (1:323). The Popular Front, made up of moderate communists and socialists, was coming to the fore at the expense of more radical factions. Perhaps for commercial reasons, perhaps for personal ones, Hughes’s poetry by the end of the decade and into the 1940s was more aligned with this moderate movement than with radical communism. In “Let America Be America Again,” Hughes uses a multivocal technique to simultaneously support and undercut the American dream: 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.) (189) This mumbling speaker turns out to be “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,” the “Negro bearing slavery’s scars,” the “red man driven from the land,” and the “immigrant clutching the hope I seek” (190). Here, as in the earlier communist poems, Hughes joins the causes of all the oppressed classes in America in a vow that the America that never was “will be!” Yet, in the final lines, Hughes invokes a vision of the desired future, but rather than a Soviet industrial workers’ paradise, he imagines “The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. / The mountains and the endless plain-- / All, all the stretch of these great green states” (191). In fact, he imagines an American much more in keeping with “America the Beautiful” than the Communist Manifesto (Shulman 302). “Let America Be America Again,” in fact, is one of Hughes’s most racially egalitarian poems, for here,
Stone 8 he never does give precedence to the Negro’s cause. His exposure to communist ideals in the early 1930s enlarged his understanding of oppression to include both whites and nonwhites around the world, and “Let America Be America Again” brings that understanding back home, envisioning an America in which every race is equal and thus there is no need to single out even his own.
Stone 9 Works Consulted Dawahare, Anthony. “Langston Hughes’s Radical Poetry and the ‘End of Race.’” MELUS 23:3 (Autumn 1998): 21-41. Hughes, Langston. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Ed. Arnold Rampersad. NY: Vintage Classics, 1994. ---. Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writings of Social Protest. Ed. Faith Berry. NY: Citadel Press, 1992. ---. I Wonder as I Wander. NY: Hill & Wang, 1956. ---. The Political Plays of Langston Hughes. Ed. Susan Duffy. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. Jemi, Onwuchekwa. “Or Does it Explode?” Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah. NY: Amistad, 1993. Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. 2nd Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Shulman, Robert. The Power of Political Art: The 1930s Literary Left Reconsidered. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Smethurst, James Edward. The New Red Negro: The Literary Left and African American Poetry, 1930-1946. NY: Oxford University Press, 1999. Thurston, Michael. Making Something Happen: American Political Poetry Between the World Wars. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
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