by carl wilson

Blues for Langston Hughes

hughes.jpg"Portrait of Langston Hughes" by Carl Van Vechten, 1936.

Off-topic, strictly speaking, though Hughes' poetry was certainly closely bound to music. But I think this response to the idiot wind of Timothy Noah in Slate today deserves a public airing. Noah's basic gripe is that John Kerry shouldn't be using Hughes' line "Let America Be America Again" as a campaign slogan because (a) it arguably oversimplifies the ironic, not nostalgic sense in which Hughes meant it - let America be the America it's never been for a black man; and (b) Hughes was a Communist: "Toil good, private ownership bad, etc. ... the future Hughes imagined for America when he wrote those words probably looked a lot like Stalinist Russia." Noah claims that he "brings all this up not to bash Hughes ... but to warn Kerry that this particular Hughes poem comes with baggage he would best do without." As opposed to what? Maybe Dreams Deferred?: "What happens to a dream deferred? .. Maybe it just sags/ like a heavy load./ Or does it explode?"

Dear Mr. Noah,
I almost never write letters to my fellow journalists, but your campaign against Langston Hughes is one of the most absurd abuses of the pulpit I have seen in ages.

As you say yourself, "Hughes ... was hardly the only serious artist who swooned over the Soviet experiment during the 1930s." However, that does not mean that all the work those artists produced in that troubled time was Stalinist propaganda. Sorry for the inconvenience, but you cannot wish away all politically engaged American art so easily.

The finest of these artists were responding to the conditions of their own lives, in their own country. If in hindsight we disagree with the solutions they were attracted to, that does not invalidate the questions they asked. To infer from the poem that Hughes was stumping for a Soviet-style command economy and dictatorship of the proletariat is to impute far more to the words than are there. Whatever he might have endorsed for that short interval, his poetry was not making policy proposals.

It was not that American artists in the 1930s fell in love with the gulag and then fell out of love with it, but that they did not know about the gulag and were disillusioned when they discovered it. In particular, many black Americans at the time found that the Communist party was the only white political organization in America that sought them out and vocally supported their full enfranchisement and civil rights, not some charity-minded compromise. The Communists were opportunistic, yes, but there it was.

These artists briefly imagined that the fair and cooperative society they yearned for was being built in Russia. It was not, of course. But that does not mean that their dream itself was evil - nor that they went on to abandon it. It is a dream that reasonable people around the world hold dear. To many people it is the unrealized American dream - not socialism, but a broader sense of democracy.

It would include the concept that the privileged should not monopolize the governance of a society, and even that there should be some mechanism to redistribute parts of their hoarded resources to the needy. (We wild-eyed radicals call it progressive taxation.)

Perhaps in his heart John Kerry believes that too. I hope so.

Hughes' poem does not say the American promise is "hooey." It says that it has been repeatedly betrayed, yet still might be honoured. That paradox still resonates with millions of people now, reflecting their own experiences of America, not just within your own borders but around the world, most sharply right now in Iraq.

It is heartening that Kerry is aware enough of Hughes' legacy - one of the earliest notable literary achievements in black American culture - to quote him and even introduce a collection of his poems. Why don't you ask the sitting president if he even knows who Hughes was? What a relief to see a candidate who has some grasp of the cultural history of the country he proposes to govern.

For you to respond with Red-baiting, point-scoring guff, using Langston Hughes as your whipping boy, is an offence to literature, to black culture in particular, and to your readers' intelligence. The likes of you spat on him while he was alive. I beg of you: Must you also spit on his grave?

The Writ | Posted by zoilus on Monday, July 26 at 01:29 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (1)



Well said... I read that bit yesterday and started to rethink my Slate-reading ways. Oh well, it's still got Doonesbury. It's also the only source that's commented on the absurdity of Dairy Queen's Moolatte, so far as I've seen.

Posted by Dave on July 27, 2004 11:15 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson