Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Parlor Figure Name:  Langston Hughes

Birth-Death: February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967(4)

Residence (city, state, or region): Harlem, New York(4)

Hughes was an American poet, social activist (wanted equality between whites and blacks), novelist, short-story writer, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form jazz poetry. Hughes is best-known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.(5)

What’s this person best known for?
Hughes is best known for being an advocate of African American art. He wrote in different genres, but is best known for his poetry. He was an advocate for the black aesthetic movement, and urged African American writers to write about the African American experience. Hughes basically calls to arms African American poets to find pride and beauty in their race in order to uplift their own people. His logic was that if African Americans themselves couldn’t see black beauty then who would? Not whites, or anyone, for that matter. The black middle-class families especially lived  by so many white standards and were submerged in a binary in which white was associated with success and superiority, and black the opposite(6).
Through his essay, “The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain,” his confronts this problem that is sadly within the black community by writing up a young, promising poet that claimed he “Wanted to be a poet, but not a Negro poet,” which Hughes deciphers to mean that he would like to be a white poem, and truly just white. By doing this, he tells the audience that the young poet will never be a great one unless he writes about what he knows: The African American experience.
However, No portion of Hughes's literary career has been more commonly dismissed than that of the 1930s. Even many of Hughes's admirers compare unfavorably his writings of the 1930s to his work in other decades. This asserted nadir of Hughes's literary efforts is almost always related to his engagement with the CPUSA (Communist Party USA).(4)

Race/Ethnicity/Religion (if important): Black/African American(3)

Politics: Communist: Never openly admitted it.(3)

Beliefs about relation between art and politics (if applicable):
He used art (poems) to express his communist beliefs. He literally calls for “revolt” in his poem, “A New Song.”(4)

Major Activities in the 1930s:

The largest part of Hughes's poetic production during the 1930s was his "revolutionary poetry," often seen as his weakest or strongest work according to the political bent of the critic. Given the anti-communism that has dominated American intellectual life since the 1940s, the predominant critical view has been that these poems are among Hughes's slightest. (As we shall see, critics associated with the Communist Left in the 1930s often did not value Hughes's work much more than the anti-Communist critics.) Few of these scholars who dismiss Hughes's work of the 1930s consider the poetry formally in any specific way. (For that matter, the proponents of Hughes's revolutionary poems rarely consider formal questions, either.) All in all these critics seem to accept the assumption that has been frequently attributed to intellectuals and artists most closely connected with the CPUSA: that the form of the revolutionary poem is, or should be, transparent, allowing the clear viewing of the message or "line." This poetry is seen as beyond form, but somehow filled with an unmediated, and generally false, meaning--to read one of these poems is to read them all. In short, such poetry is sloganeering and a slogan, as everyone knows, is inherently uninteresting except perhaps sociologically.Such undervaluation of Hughes's revolutionary poetry misses the sly voice inhabiting the poems. This voice usually means what it says, but never quite says all that it means in a straightforward way. Instead it remains elusive through a skillful use of syntactic manipulation, rhythm, and other formal devices, conveying multiple meanings to multiple audiences.(3)
Major Works (include dates and place of publication where applicable):(5)

  • "The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain" The Nation, (23 June 1926)
  • "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"(June 1921)
  • "Mulatto" (1935)
  • "The Ways of White Folks"(1934)
  • "Let America be America Again" (1938)
  • "A New Song"(1938)

Places where figure’s work often appears (magazines, radio, nightclubs, galleries):

That Hughes was, with the exception of Richard Wright, the black writer most identified with the Communist Left during the 1930s is undeniable. Hughes's frequent publication of "revolutionary" poetry in the journals and press of the CPUSA, his activity in Communist-initiated campaigns such as the drive to free the Scottsboro defendants and on behalf of the Spanish Republic, his willingness to lend his name to Communist-led or Communist-influenced organizations (e.g., the John Reed Clubs, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the National Negro Congress, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, the League of American Writers), and his public support of the Soviet Union all marked him as an open member of the Communist Left--whether or not he formally joined the CPUSA.(3)

Organizations s/he belongs to, causes s/he supports:
John Reed Clubs, the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, the National Negro Congress, the League of Professional Groups for Foster and Ford, the League of American Writers(3)

Best sound bites by or about this figure, including source (if this person is a writer, you must include a quote by him or her):

  • When Hughes was accused of being a Communist by many on the political right, but he always denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote "it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept."
  • An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose. 
  • I swear to the Lord, I still can't see, why Democracy means, everybody but me (2)

Was this person a popular or critical success? 
Popular success; best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance and an innovator of jazz-poetry.(3)

Any Gossip? 

Some academics and biographers today believe that Hughes was homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman. Hughes has cited him as an influence on his poetry. To retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted.ther scholars argue for Hughes's homosexuality: his love of black men is evidenced in a number of reported unpublished poems to an alleged black male lover.(5)

Fun Facts to Know and Tell:

  • The 1960 NAACP awards presented Langston Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American.
  • Enrolled at Columbia University to study engineering but dropped out and travelled to Africa, Holland, and Paris(1).

Titles of the 1-3 “texts” (writing, photos, songs, etc.) by this person you’ll discuss in your paper (include date and place of publication, if applicable):(5)

1. "The New Song" (1938)

2. "Mulatto" (1935)

3. "The Ways of White Folks" (1934)

What primary research have you done?

 I have visited academic websites such as, read anthologies in which many of his essays, poems, short stories, and brief bibliographies are included, and interviewed a professor that had some interesting information about Hughes.

Major influences on this person’s work (what’s on the bookshelf):

  • Walt Whitman 
  • Carl Sandburg(5)

Connections with other parlor figures:

a. Friends, people who work together, people in the same circle

  • In 1937, Hughes became a reporter for the Baltimore Afro-American and traveled to Spain to write on the Spanish Civil War where  Ernest Hemingway befriended him and the two would attend bullfights (8).
  • Langston Hughes was friends with Diego Rivera and met all of his wives. However, no one in Mexico seemed to fascinate Hughes so much as the tempestuous Lupe Marin, one of Rivera’s ex-wives, to whom Langston devoted more space in I Wonder as I Wander than to his then wife, Frida Kahlo. Hughes wrote; “I’d rather spend my time writing short stories and listening to Lupe talking about her love-life from Mexico to Paris and back,” and  “Lupe is one of Diego’s former wives- and is just about the most amusing person in the world. Diego painted her on half the walls in the country”(10).
  • Granville Hicks, an author-reviewer in New Masses, had “Not Without Laughter” in mind when he mistakenly referred to it, instead of “The Ways of White Folks,”in an assessment,”Revolutionary Literature of 1934”(10).
  • Langston Hughes wrote a poem about Helen Keller called "Helen Keller"(9).
b. political or artistic allies
  • After efforts by Edwin Embree, Agnes Smedley, and Malcom Cowley, Langston Hughes became the first black, certainly the first in the United States, to be admitted to the prestigious international writers organization, PEN (7).
  • Hughes and Woody Guthrie, flirted with the Communist Party without ever becoming a member, and their lyrics spoke out on the social and economic issues of the 1930’s and 1940’s (9).

c. political or artistic opponents

  • Zora Neale Hurston became close friends with Langston Hughes, after she became famous for her part in the Harlem Renaissance's Literati.They were both funded by the same patron, Charlotte Mason. Zora was very adept in her quest for funds and was criticized by many. In 1930 Zora, Langston and their typist collaborated on a play. Zora wrote the play and Hughes created the plot. Zora was unwilling to share the writing credit and sent the copyright with only her name on it. Langston threatened to sue.Devastated, Langston ended his friendship with Zora Neale and Charlotte Mason. Years later Hughes retaliated in his autobiography by calling Zora the "Perfect Darkie" for her white friends. Zora did not mention Langston in her autobiography, the break up of their friendship was final and to some people it marked the end of Harlem renaissance(11).

Works Cited

1) "Facts About Langston Hughes." facts-about. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Sep 2011.                <>.

2) Langston, Hughes. "Langston Hughes Quotes." Brainy Quotes. N.p., n.d.                                                          Web. 12 Sep 2011.             

3) “Langston Hughes.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature.                                 
    Ed.. Patricia Wallace. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. Print.

4) Smethurst, James. "Hughes in The 1930's." Modern American Poetry.           
 N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Sep 2011.   

5)"Langston Hughes." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Aug. 2011. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.

6) Rode, Curt. Personal interview. 15 Sept. 2011.

7) Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes:1941:1967.

8)"Langston Hughes, "Yip" Harbug, and Woody Guthrie: Poets of the Depression." N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sep 2011. <>.

9)"Hughes, (James Mercer) Langston." N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sep 2011. <>.

10) Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes, before and beyond Harlem‬.

11)"Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)." N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Sep 2011. <>.

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