The Pride of Harlem
By Gabriel Blanchard
Human dignity perennially demands both political and artistic expression; in Langston Hughes, both impulses are revealed.
Even after a hundred years, the Roaring Twenties loom large in the American imagination. It was the age of jazz and Art Deco, of the automobile and the household telephone, of women’s suffrage, of the resolute and universal ignoring of Prohibition. Following the Spanish-American War and World War One, the US had established itself as a world power. Among all these things, the 1920s were also the age of the Harlem Renaissance (named for a neighborhood of Manhattan that at the time was predominantly Black), an artistic and cultural movement among Black Americans that is still one of our most celebrated milestones. The miserable legacy of Reconstruction, including segregation, was being challenged politically, notably by Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois; at the same time, an outpouring of creative energy took place, particularly in the brand new art form of film. Probably the most famous of the poets and prophets of the Harlem Renaissance was an unassuming, bookish Midwesterner who came there in the middle of the decade, by the name of Langston Hughes.
Hughes’ poetry, now referred to as jazz poetry, was some of the earliest of its kind. Jazz music itself originated in the African-American community around New Orleans, and jazz poetry drew on its free-form, syncopated æsthetic, in both style and subject matter. Hughes’ debut volume The Weary Blues came out in 1926; he showed a gift for epigrams, and his phrase “when the Negro was in vogue” (referring to the way white “onlookers” sometimes frequented Black establishments in the 1920s) became associated with the Harlem Renaissance in general. One of his most important collections of verse was Montage of a Dream Deferred, published a quarter of a century later, which gave Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun its title.
He also wrote prose fiction, including such titles as Not Without Laughter (a semi-autobiographical novel set in Kansas, where Hughes spent part of his childhood) and the technically innovative mixed-media novel The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Here, almost in the manner of a comic book, narrative is blended with photographs taken in the period the story is set, and the narrative voice is first-person and diaristic, imitating the vernacular of the grandmother who thus introduces her family to the reader. The book was composed and the photographs taken shortly after the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down all segregationist laws as inherently unconstitutional.
This prompts the thought of twentieth-century politics in the US, which were radically different in the earlier half of the century than they were in the latter, for quite a number of reasons. In particular, socialism—which was more a group of schools of thought united by themes than a single movement united by policy—was not seen by Americans in general in the same terms it was during the Cold War. Things we take for granted like the eight-hour workday, which factory owners bitterly opposed throughout the nineteenth century, had been secured principally by socialist activists and their allies.* Vocal sympathy with these groups and even with the Soviet Union was not uncommon (especially before the advent of Stalin), nor perceived as inherently unpatriotic. Accusations in the McCarthy era notwithstanding, Hughes was never a member of the Communist Party, in part perhaps due to his distaste for the possibility of having to accept orders from a central authority he might disagree with. However, he visited the USSR in the early 1930s, a time when westerners were not free or frequent sojourners there. The original purpose of the trip was to contribute to a documentary on American segregation; the project was dropped by the Soviets when they successfully obtained diplomatic recognition from the US, and were seeking accordingly to downplay any international antagonism.
Besides his interest in socialistic and proletarian causes, Hughes also promoted Black nationalism. This concept is sometimes misunderstood, thanks to figures who promote fringe versions of it; in essence, and as Hughes meant it, it was an assertion of Black equality and dignity in the midst of a white-dominated society, and of the consequent fact that Black people, ideas, and institutions did not need to wait for validation from white people to attain legitimacy. This cause animated some of his nonfiction writings, especially in the 1950s, such as Famous American Negroes and the memoirs The Big Sea and I Wonder As I Wander.
Above all else, Hughes’ plays are his claim to fame. Some were relatively conventional in their structure and material, like Tambourines to Glory (about a pair of women opening a storefront church) or Black Nativity (a retelling of the Christian Nativity story with a Black cast and setting). Perhaps his best-known is Jerico-Jim Crow; all three of these plays were musicals that made use of gospel singing.
Others were more unsettling. One example is one of Hughes’ very first plays, which debuted in 1935 under the title Mulatto.** It hews close to the structure of a Greek tragedy, telling the story of the ill-fated family of the Norwood Plantation. Colonel Norwood, an elderly widower, has four mixed-race children with his housekeeper Cora; it is explained that the youngest, Bert, was his favorite, until the day when (at just seven years old) he made the mistake of addressing his father as “papa,” earning him a beating and dismissal to a boarding school. As Mulatto begins, a freshly come-of-age Bert has returned to the plantation—and is only insisting more fervently that his father acknowledge him for who he is. The combined strains of family and racial tension escalate irrevocably throughout, until—in the style of an Elizabethan revenge tragedy, and not unlike the contemporary O’Neill trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra—nearly everything is resolved in blood.
*One such activist was Albert Parsons, a Confederate veteran who accepted Reconstruction. Parsons married a Black woman, and ultimately became one of the Haymarket Martyrs; his widow, Lucy Parsons, continued his work after his death.
**Re-released in 1950 as an opera, the play was then renamed The Barrier.
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore.
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Published on 27th February, 2023.