‘Too many dreams have been deferred for too long,’ Joe Biden announced in his acceptance speech of 7 November 2020. It isn’t unusual for American politicians to talk about dreams in their speeches, but they don’t often quote from Langston Hughes, famous for his communist sympathies and irreverent poems (‘Listen Christ,/You did alright in your day, I reckon –/But that day’s gone now’). Biden was referring to Hughes’s long poem of 1951, Montage of a Dream Deferred, which is made up of characters, idioms and vignettes from Harlem life, and posits this central question:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes was not himself prone to explosive behaviour, even when summoned to Washington to account for his radical past by Joe McCarthy, and taunted and grilled by Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, in March 1953. The transcripts of those sessions, declassified in 2003, present a battle of wits, as Hughes ducks or deflects or refutes Cohn’s assaults without ever seeming to lose his cool, though his livelihood was on the line. So convincingly did he present himself as a reformed communist that, at the conclusion of the final session, McCarthy actually winked at him, or so Hughes liked to relate.
The spirit of revolt did, however, run in the family. His maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson, married Lewis Sheridan Leary in 1858. The following year, Leary was recruited by John Brown for his suicidal raid on Harpers Ferry, and the bullet-riddled shawl that was eventually returned to Mary was in due course used as a blanket for the infant Langston (a middle name – he was baptised James, after his father). Mary’s next husband, Charles Henry Langston, was an abolitionist too; he insisted they name their son after Nat Turner, the leader of the 1831 Virginia slave revolt. His younger brother, John Langston, became one of the most prominent advocates for Black rights in the Reconstruction era, and was elected to Congress in 1890. By 1901, however, when Hughes was born, the spread of Jim Crow laws had eroded the promise of emancipation and Black suffrage. In his testimony to Cohn and McCarthy, Hughes described the origins of his desire for radical change in American society:
I was born a Negro. From my very earliest childhood memories, I have encountered very serious and very hurtful problems. One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the movies in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived, and there was one motion picture theatre, and I went every afternoon. It was a nickelodeon, and I had a nickel to go. One afternoon I put my nickel down and the woman pushed it back and she pointed to a sign.
The sign said: ‘Coloured not admitted.’ ‘My playmates,’ Hughes continued, ‘who were white and lived next door to me, could go to that motion picture and I could not. I could never see a film in Lawrence again.’ In elementary school his teacher made ‘unpleasant and derogatory remarks about Negroes’ and he was stoned by classmates on his way home. During his freshman year at Columbia he was denied a dorm room and excluded from contributing to the college newspaper. And, as he pointed out to his increasingly impatient accusers (‘Could you make it briefer, please?’ Cohn interjects at one point), he was still unable to go to certain lectures or concerts in the South – even to take a book out from a public library.
In Hughes’s first and perhaps most famous poem, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, written when he was seventeen, he allied himself with the African strand in his genealogy. The poem was composed in the Jim Crow carriage of a train taking him south to visit his despised father, who had moved to Mexico. When the train crossed the Mississippi, as he recalled in the first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940),
I looked out the window of the Pullman at the great muddy river flowing down towards the heart of the South, and I began to think what that river, the old Mississippi, had meant to Negroes in the past – how to be sold down the river was the worst fate that could overtake a slave in times of bondage. Then I remembered reading how Abraham Lincoln had made a trip down the Mississippi on a raft to New Orleans, and how he had seen slavery at its worst, and had decided within himself that it should be removed from American life. Then I began to think about other rivers in our past – the Congo, and the Niger, and the Nile in Africa – and the thought came to me: I’ve known rivers …
The poem ends:
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,
and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
The collective, omniscient consciousness enacted here was prompted as much by Hughes’s need to escape the conflicts and lacunae of his upbringing as by his need to subsume his own voice into that of a single, all-representative ‘Negro’. His mother, Carrie, was by all accounts feckless and self-absorbed, and often left him in the care of his grandmother or family friends, while his father departed for Mexico soon after Langston was born. Just before writing ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, Hughes had been pondering his father’s ‘strange dislike of his own people’ and the tensions and self-division this entailed. During the unhappy summer that he spent with him in Mexico in 1919, Hughes was often urged by his father to abandon both his country and his race. It was too late. As he put it in another poem composed around the same time: ‘I am a Negro:/Black as the night is black,/Black like the depths of my Africa.’ In The Big Sea, Hughes includes some samples of their interchanges from that summer:
‘Don’t stay in the States, where you have to live like a n––––– with n–––––s.’
‘But I like Negroes,’ I said. ‘We have plenty of fun.’
‘Fun!’ my father shouted. ‘How can you have fun with the colour line staring you in the face. I never could.’
Nella Larsen’s first novel, Quicksand, which follows the fortunes of a beautiful mixed-race woman who bears more than a passing resemblance to Larsen herself, is prefaced by four lines from Hughes’s poem ‘Cross’, published in 1925:
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Both Larsen and Hughes confronted and dramatised the trope of the ‘tragic mulatto’: Larsen in novels about the upper echelons of Harlem high society; Hughes in blues-style ballads such as ‘Cross’ or ‘Mulatto’, which evokes rape and violence on a pine-scented Southern night, and culminates in the white man’s refusal to acknowledge the resulting ‘little yellow/Bastard boy’. Hughes composed a play on the same theme, Mulatto, which opened on Broadway in 1935 and ran for eleven months. In The Big Sea, he carefully itemises his complex ancestry: his male great-grandparents include a Jewish slave merchant, a Scotch distiller, a French trader and a plantation owner called Captain Ralph Quarles (a descendant of the Jacobean poet Francis Quarles), while one of his maternal great-grandmothers was Cherokee. When Hughes first set foot in Africa in 1923, having jettisoned his studies at Columbia and shipped out as a mess boy, none of the people he encountered in Dakar or Lagos or the other West African ports at which his boat docked considered him Black. ‘The Africans looked at me,’ he records, ‘and would not believe I was a Negro.’
The first 25 years of Hughes’s writing career were peripatetic. In 1924, after a second working voyage across the Atlantic, he jumped ship in Holland and made his way to Paris, where he eked out a living as a sous-chef cum plongeur. Stays in Cuba, in Haiti, in the Soviet Union (where he spent ten months in 1932-33) and in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War allowed him to connect his own experiences of humiliation and oppression with international struggles against imperialism and fascism. Reading tours in the South, which he undertook on a regular basis, convinced him of the scope and intractability of white supremacism. Many of the engagé poems that came out of his travels – ‘Good Morning Revolution’ or ‘A New Song’ or ‘Roar, China!’ – aren’t much more than a set of propagandistic slogans chopped up and presented as free verse, and it’s easy to see why he later avoided collecting most of the crude, if rousing, pieces first published in the New Masses or the Daily Worker. In the crisis-ridden 1930s, Hughes was happy to combine the roles of activist, foreign correspondent and purveyor of agitprop verse. His most inventive and original poetry, however, had other sources, and in retrospect the most significant journey that he ever made was one of the shortest, from Times Square, where he spent his first night in New York on 4 September 1921, to 135th Street. ‘Harlem! I stood there,’ he recalled in The Big Sea, ‘dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.’
The title poem of his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), was inspired by a visit to a cabaret on Lenox Avenue. It was composed the year after The Waste Land was published, with its snatch of ragtime – at a time, that is, when the border between popular culture and poetry was becoming porous in new and exciting ways. Hughes found himself attempting both a performance of the blues and his responses to that performance.
Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway …
He did a lazy sway …
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
The distance between poet and performer is elided in the uncertainty of who is doing the droning and rocking in the opening lines, while the interaction between the literary and the blues idioms and rhythms allows narrator and singer almost to riff off each other. Hughes had listened to the blues since childhood, and in the wake of writing this poem, which he tinkered with for a couple of years before submitting it for publication, he realised that the repetitions and call and response format of the blues lyric could be repurposed to capture the tribulations of life in Harlem.
Only a handful of poems in The Weary Blues make use of the blues, but in the collection he published the following year, Fine Clothes to the Jew (the Jew in question being a pawnbroker willing to buy garments from indebted Blacks), Hughes took full advantage of his discovery. Like Zora Neale Hurston, with whom he toured the South in summer of 1927, Hughes was determined to capture on the page the inflections of his speakers, even when this risked association with the demeaning patter of blackface routines:
Heard de owl a hootin’,
Knowed somebody’s ’bout to die,
Heard de owl a hootin’,
Knowed somebody’s ’bout to die,
Put my head un’neath de kiver,
Started in to moan an’ cry.
(‘Gal’s Cry for a Dying Lover’)
The impersonality of these poems is striking. As intimated in ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, Hughes needed to feel connected to the history, and indeed the prehistory, of Africans in America to discover his own poetic fluency: the idiom of the blues embodied a generalised consciousness in which that history was implicitly evoked in relation to current anxieties, a language ‘dirty with pain’, as he once put it, ‘and lazy with the weariness of life’. And while most of the poems are laments, the act of speaking encodes its own muted sense of triumph and resilience. As he put it in ‘Song for Billie Holiday’,
What can purge my heart
Of the song
And the sadness?
What can purge my heart
But the song
Of the sadness?
Hughes considered jazz, like the blues, a form of resistance to conformity and constriction, beating, as he put it in ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, ‘the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile’.
His rise to fame was swift. ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ appeared in the leading Black magazine, The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, when Hughes was just nineteen. ‘The Weary Blues’ won first prize in a contest hosted by Opportunity in 1925, and the same year he was taken on by Alfred Knopf, courtesy of the influential Carl Van Vechten. By the time Hughes resumed his undergraduate career in 1926 (this time at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania), he had one volume to his name and another forthcoming, and was known to – and admired by – many of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance: Alain Locke, Arna Bontemps, Wallace Thurman and Hurston. Patronage was also forthcoming: Charlotte Mason, a white widow in her seventies who dreamed of founding ‘The Harlem Museum of African Art’, began not only inviting him to her Park Avenue apartment and having him squire her to operas at the Met and concerts at Carnegie Hall, but arranged to pay him a monthly stipend of $150 in the hope that he would write a novel consonant with her vision of Black primitivism. Not long after, however, Mason offered a similar contract to Hurston (though her stipend was $200), and she and Hughes now found themselves jousting for the approval of ‘Godmother’, as they were encouraged to call her.
The affair ended miserably for Hughes, and his fall from Mason’s favour in 1930 resulted in what he presents in The Big Sea as a nervous breakdown, in the aftermath of which he resolved to rely only on his own efforts for money: ‘Poetry became bread; prose, shelter and raiment. Words turned into songs, plays, scenarios, articles and stories.’ The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, published in the early 2000s by the University of Missouri Press, runs to sixteen volumes, testifying to the versatility and resourcefulness required to become one of the few Black writers of his era to make a living from his pen. Even someone as famous as Hughes struggled to work in film or television – Hollywood might as well have put up a sign reading ‘Coloured not admitted.’
A more direct threat came from the Christian right. In his ‘Goodbye Christ’ of 1932, Hughes singled out for opprobrium ‘Saint Aimee McPherson’, a Pentecostal evangelist who had become a media celebrity. His attack didn’t go unnoticed, and in 1940 McPherson orchestrated a picket of a gala luncheon in Pasadena for The Big Sea. Leaflets denouncing Hughes as a communist and reprinting his poem were distributed to the arriving guests, while a loudspeaker blared out ‘God Bless America.’ Intimidated, the hotel manager insisted on cancelling the event, and in a preview of the dilemma posed by his summons to Washington, Hughes had to work out how best to mitigate the damage caused by verses written at the height of his radical phase. He eventually issued a retraction, in which he said he no longer wished ‘to épater le bourgeois’, and argued that the poem was intended to satirise those who profit from religion rather than Christ himself. Further, the communist speaker was an invented character to be distinguished from the author:
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 …
That ‘ME’ was on no account to be confused with Hughes himself. While this may have mollified McPherson and her supporters, it inevitably led to denunciations from left-wing papers and accusations of cowardice. And it was in the wake of this controversy that the FBI opened a file on him as a potential danger to the nation.
Hughes wrote so much, and in so many different genres, that even Arnold Rampersad, in his magnificent two-volume biography published in the 1980s, had trouble keeping track of his output: his theatre projects, his collaborations with composers like Kurt Weill and William Grant Still, his readings and lectures, his column for the Chicago Defender, his novels and short stories, his poems for children, his volumes of autobiography. A running theme of Hughes’s career was the quest for a bona fide Broadway hit that would alleviate the financial pressures that, for all his celebrity, never entirely went away. Street Scene, staged in 1947, was his most successful theatrical venture: its royalties allowed him to purchase a townhouse on East 127th Street and settle in Harlem for good.
It was at this point that Hughes began work on Montage of a Dream Deferred. In the preface, he describes the sequence as an attempt to refract the energies of ‘jazz, ragtime, swing, blues, boogie-woogie and be-bop’, and in particular to match be-bop’s use of ‘conflicting changes, sudden nuances, sharp and impudent interjections, broken rhythms’. Montage is certainly discontinuous, cutting between characters and dictions, restlessly seeking novel ways to capture the sights and sounds of Harlem, rupturing its flow of images and voices with exclamations of ‘pop-a-da’ or ‘ool ya koo’ or ‘Hey, pop!/Re-bop!/Mop!// Y-e-a-h!’ It’s crowded with names (Dizzy Gillespie, Sammy Davis, Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson), with flashing neon (WONDER BAR, CASBAH, SHALIMAR), with headlines, snatches of speech, children’s rhymes, lists of goods for sale (‘Groceries/Suits/Fruits/Watches/Diamond rings/THE DAILY NEWS’), with taxis, subways, letters, dreams, nightmares, parades, funerals, with fragments that might be the refrain of a song:
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day –
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.
The elated and the disillusioned jostle side by side, the pleasures of dancing and music juxtaposed with distress over a leaky roof, unpaid rent or a faithless lover, while the words that made their way into Biden’s speech recur over and over: ‘What happens/to a dream deferred?//Daddy, ain’t you heard?’
The extent to which Hughes, despite his natural modesty, was willing to step into the role of spokesperson or figurehead can be seen in the wide-ranging interviews, essays and speeches collected by Christopher De Santis in Let America Be America Again. His title is borrowed from a poem of the mid-1930s, which largely focuses on those for whom the American dream is a hoax (‘There’s never been equality for me,/Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free”’), though in Whitmanian fashion Hughes also celebrates the ideals underpinning the republic, however relentlessly betrayed. ‘I, too, sing America,’ he had declared in 1926, demanding to be acknowledged as Whitman’s ‘darker brother’ and, though still sent to ‘eat in the kitchen’, daringly figures himself in this early piece as a bard with equal rights to the nation and its myths, its triumphant conclusion out-Whitmaning Whitman: ‘I, too, am America.’
The ‘colour line’, to borrow the term deployed by his father in their disputes, permeates Hughes’s output from start to finish. Unlike, say, James Baldwin, whose Giovanni’s Room avoids issues of race altogether, Hughes rarely strayed far from his youthful commitment to hold America to account for its racism, and he became the go-to person for think pieces or roundtable discussions on ‘The Position of the Negro in America Today’ or ‘The Negro in American Culture’ or ‘Black Writers in a Troubled World’ – the title of a speech he delivered in 1966, the year before he died, at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar. Hughes had been appointed by Lyndon Johnson to lead the American delegation, which included Duke Ellington and the gospel singer Marion Williams, an indication of the way he was now viewed in Washington, and his speech built to what must have been one of his final renditions of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. Consonant with his adolescent epiphany on the train heading south, the ‘Negro writer’ of the 1960s, he declares in the final paragraph, should aim ‘to gather the strengths of our people in Africa and the Americas into a tapestry of words as strong as the bronzes of Benin … the war cry of Chaka, the beat of the blues and the Uhuru of African freedom, and give it to the world with pride and love’.
Hughes attracted newspaper coverage wherever he performed, and this compendious volume includes many telling mini-interviews and profiles from his four decades in the public eye. A little feature titled ‘Jim Crow Can’t Keep a Poet Down’, published in the New York Post in 1947, succinctly conveys – despite its upbeat headline – the grinding battle for dignity:
‘It’s every day and all the time,’ says Langston Hughes. ‘It’s every street in every town.’
The poet talks of anti-Negro bias, which no Negro ever has been able to escape.
And Hughes, one of the country’s best poets, has a cold to show for that bias. He flew here recently from Atlanta, where he is a visiting professor of creative writing at Atlanta University. The night was dismal and rain grounded all planes. He stood at the airport for seven hours. No taxicab would take a Negro back to town, and he couldn’t even buy a cup of coffee at the lunch counter.
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