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December 15, 2017

Langston Hughes In His Place

On this day in 1967 Langston Hughes died, aged sixty-five. Hughes was one of the most influential and respected of Black American voices in the middle decades of the century, writing prolifically in many genres, and almost exclusively on one theme. In a 1926 essay entitled "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes announced that theme this way:
    We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too... If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
"I, Too Sing America" was written about the same time, in similar confidence and patience:
    I, too, sing America.

    I am the darker brother.
    They send me to eat in the kitchen
    When company comes,
    But I laugh,
    And eat well,
    And grow strong.

    Tomorrow,
    I'll be at the table
    When company comes.
    Nobody'll dare
    Say to me,
    "Eat in the kitchen,"
    Then.

    Besides,
    They'll see how beautiful I am
    And be ashamed--

    I, too, am America.
By the '50s, having become famous as a writer and acceptable as an issue, Hughes found himself brought from the kitchen to the best tables, if only to receive lip service:
    Dinner Guest: Me

    I know I am
    The Negro Problem
    Being wined and dined,
    Answering the usual questions
    That come to white mind
    Which seeks demurely
    To Probe in polite way
    The why and wherewithal
    Of darkness U.S.A.--
    Wondering how things got this way
    In current democratic night,
    Murmuring gently
    Over fraises du bois,
    "I'm so ashamed of being white."

    The lobster is delicious,
    The wine divine,
    And center of attention
    At the damask table, mine.
    To be a Problem on
    Park Avenue at eight
    Is not so bad.
    Solutions to the Problem,
    Of course, wait.
In the '60s and '70s, more militant Black Americans looked upon Hughes almost as a liability, a voice too tame and tolerant to help. In the '50s he was viewed oppositely by McCarthy: recently-released transcripts of Hughes's testimony at the HUAC hearings document the badgering stupidity to which he was subjected. Hughes remains patient throughout it all, though incredulous that either his life or his writing could be so misread:
    ...When I was graduated from high school, I went to live with my father for a time in Mexico, and in my father I encountered the kind of bitterness, the kind of utter psychiatric, you might say, frustration that has been expressed in some Negro novels, not in those I have written myself, I don't believe. A man who was rabidly anti-American, anti-United States. I did not sympathize with that viewpoint on the part of my own father. My feeling was this is my country, I want to live here. I want to come back here I want to make my country as beautiful as I can, as wonderful a country as I can, because I love it myself....

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