“Our problems in America are very much like yours,” I told the Africans, “especially in the South. I am a Negro, too.”
But they only laughed at me and shook their heads and said: “You, white man! You, white man!”
-- Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1940)
[Unusual first-name, common surname; cf. Malcolm.]
I have lately been reading widely in European cultural history of the 1920s and 30s, and in that context, re-reading the second volume of Langston Hughes’ autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (published 1956). It is one of the best books I have ever read. And it is far more gentle and ironic and humorous, more universal in appeal, than the impression you would get from the Wiki article on Hughes (which does not even discuss the book), which pretty much sees him in the lens of identity-politics.
In that memoir, largely concerned with European travels, his 1932 trajectory improbably intersects that of another of my favorite writers, Arthur Koestler: and it is fascinating to read of their stay in Turkmenistan, first from Hughes’ perspective here, and then from Koestler’s (in Koestler’s own memoirs, and in the fine biography by Michael Scammell). Their compresence on this outpost of the world-historical stage, at that fraught time, is impossible to summarize or even allude to in any illuminating way, absent the necessary background in the Zeitgeist of the time. (Read The Invisible Writing; read Out of the Night; read Memoirs of Montparnasse ; read Mémoirs d’un revolutionnaire …)
I tend not to be drawn to books with titles like A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934) (which title was quite possibly imposed on Hughes by his Bolshevik publishers), or Famous American Negroes (1954), since I am not a Negro.(**) On the other hand, I am not an Englishman either, and I love Dickens. It all depends on whether you are in the hands of a great writer. And in some of his books, Langston Hughes is that. -- Further, though a widely-traveled man of eclectic culture, he was very, very American. Henry James, T.S. Elliot -- Europe can have ‘em. Langston we keep.
(** : By contrast, the title of his story collection, The Ways of White Folks, is very appealing indeed, for I am fascinated by the ways of white folks, some of whom I number among my best friends.)
We have commented elsewhere on the current overpuffing of the literary merits (properly nugatory) of certain currently coddled groups (which both decorum and due discretion bid leave unnamed) -- based largely, one imagines, on the profiles of who-all happens to work at the literary media these days. Black men, by contrast, have been relatively quiet this past decade; if one gets the red-carpet treatment in the news, when not for some notable recent achievement, it is likely not for being black, but for (something else). But there are treasures, not much trumpeted.
Langston Hughes shares some traits with another noted American writer of mixed race, Barack Obama. (Yes, I know, he became President; but prior to that, his excellent autobiography qualified him as, indeed, a writer.) Both had a virile, absent father, admired diffidently from a distance; both spent a fair number of years, as children or young men, outside an English-speaking country; both were well aware of their marginal status -- marginal with respect to just about any gestalt you could name. (Langston may actually have been marginal in a further respect not shared by Obama; don’t know, not important here.) And both turned this predicament to ultimate good advantage.
There is nothing wrong, of course, from being a comfortable member of the dominant community (ethnic or religious or what have you) in your home country; but that background does not, by itself, lead on to philosophy. The minority, by contrast, cannot help confronting such matters. If the confrontation collapses into futility, you wind up with Identity Politics. If it serves as a path to insight, you get the world’s great literary observers.
One of the books I enjoyed during the years in Berkeley after I had dropped out of graduate school for lack of the wherewithal to pay the tuition, and lived (richly!) on literature rather than food, was Langston’s The Best of Simple. ‘Simple’ (or Semple, to the registrar) was, as the vernacular version of his surname might suggest, a Naturkind, an ingénu, a naïf : and though this personality is archetypically American, the European designations (for which I cannot, at present, think of a good English equivalent), are in point, for I Wonder as I Wander provides a surprising hint at the genesis of this character:
I have an affinity for Latin Americans, and the Spanish language I have always loved. One of the first things I did when I got to Mexico City was to get a tutor, and began to read Don Quixote in the original, a great reading experience that possibly helped me to develop, many years later, in my own books, a character called Simple
-- a kind of blend, as it were, of Sancho Panza and the Quixote.
Another surprising detail from his Mexico days (since American literati of the ‘20s and ‘30s were not generally a devout bunch):
I went to vespers every night in the old church just across the street, lighted by tall candles and smelling of incense. Sometimes I even got up early in the morning to attend mass.
By a biographical accident, it was the work of Langston Hughes that first introduced me to poetry (beyond “Twinkle twinkle little star” -- not that there is anything wrong with that poem, either, in its place). My parents were not bookish; yet somehow, on their scantly-populated shelves, stood a “slender volume of verse” (in the classic phrase of the time), its rich yellow hardcovers together actually thicker than the text in-between, called:
The Weary Blues
by Langston Hughes
(Itself already a kind of monostich, I noted with astonishment.)
One I recall from memory:
Bring me all of your dreams, you dreamers.
Bring me all your heart-melodies,
that I may wrap them in a blue cloud-cloth,
away from the too-rough fingers of the world.
I hesitate even to quote this, for the very reason the poet cites: the too-rough fingers of the world. It needs to nestle in its octavo yellow covers, being gently handled by my own slim fingers, aged nine. (It is not, in itself, on the level of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”; but remember: Up to that time, I had met nothing much beyond the level of the Alphabet Song.)
Anyhow, here is a picture of the man, one that warms my heart. I could easily have selected one less contentious; but Langston liked his liquor, and his jazz, and the sweet feel of a woman -- and yes, he sometimes enjoyed a smoke. He was never one to kowtow to pieties (not even those of the Left).
|Here's looking at you, kid.|
[Update Sept 2014] Cf. now this