Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967) was a gay man who, because of his era and his community, was deeply in the closet. He remains one of my favorite poets. Hughes was also an inspired novelist, lecturer, columnist, playwright, and one of the very most important and interesting interpreters of the USA’s problems with racism.
Born in Missouri, both of his grandfathers were white and slave owners. His father left his family, fleeing to Cuba to escape the enduring racism they faced every day.
Hughes left Cuba when he was accepted at Columbia University where he was an excellent student. But, he dropped out because of the pressure of prejudice. He became entranced by the world of Jazz and nightclubs in nearby Harlem. It was a landmark time in that New York City neighborhood, an era of unprecedented creative, artistic energy that we now have dubbed “The Harlem Renaissance“.
Hughes did eventually go back to school, receiving his B.A. from Lincoln University, a historically black college in Pennsylvania. Thurgood Marshall, who later became the first black Justice of the Supreme Court, was a classmate.
Hughes was one of the innovators of a new literary form that was labeled Jazz Poetry. He was discovered as a poet while working as a busboy at a hotel in Washington DC. Hughes dropped his poems beside the innovative musical poet Vachel Lindsay‘s dinner plate. Lindsay thought highly of Hughes poems and supported and helped launched his career as a writer. The incident is recounted in Hughes’ poem Busboys And Poets.
Many historians use the excuse that Hughes was “ambiguous”, “androgynous”, “ageless”, and “sexless” to explain away Hughes’ gayness. I think it is rather obvious from his writing that Hughes was not just gay, he was queer, with plenty of codes in his poems, in the manner of Walt Whitman, Hughes’ major influence as a writer.
Because of the era in which he lived and the community that he was a part of, Hughes had to have felt the demand to remain in the closet. He desired the respect and support of black churches and Civil Rights organizations.
The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) was the first to publish one of Hughes’ poems: The Negro Speaks Of Rivers (1921).
Hughes had a fascination with dark skinned sailors and soldiers. He had worked for a while as a crew member on a ship, where Hughes had what he described as his first homosexual experience. It might have been with any of the attractive guys who bunked in the same cabin, like the serving boy from the Philippines, the Puerto Rican guy who admitted to not liking girls, or the funny black kid from Kentucky who was a former dresser for a female impersonator, all who found their way into Hughes’ stories.
In 1935, Hughes received a Guggenheim Fellowship which allowed him to establish a theatre company in Los Angeles, and to realize a dream of having one of his screenplays made into a film. His dream came true with Way Down South (1939), a musical about slavery. He also wrote the lyrics and libretto for Street Scene, an opera by Kurt Weill.
Hughes wrote about the fight against Fascism in Europe and he had spent time in the USSR. He was accused of being a Communist by people on the political right, but he denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote:
“Communism is based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept.“
In 1949, Hughes wrote:
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear
In 1953, he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) led by the Mike Pence of his day, Senator Joseph McCarthy. Hughes testified:
“I never read the theoretical books of Socialism or Communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself.“
After his testimony, Hughes distanced himself from Communism. He was then shunned by the Radical Left who had previously supported him. He moved away from overtly political poems and towards more lyrical subjects. When choosing his pieces for his Selected Poems (1959), he excluded all his politically inspired pieces from the 1930s.
How appropriate that on the first day of Black History Month, we celebrate Hughes, one of the first African-Americans who could support himself by writing. He was prolific; producing novels, short stories, plays, operas, essays, stories for children, and of course, lots of poetry.
He is the subject of an excellent documentary film, Looking For Langston (1989), that points out that Hughes’ gayness has been historically ignored. Daniel Sunjata portrays Hughes as gay in the evocative film Brother To Brother (2004). Spike Lee‘s joint Get On The Bus (1996), has a black gay character, played by, ironically, homophobe Isaiah Washington, who punches a homophobic character, saying: “This is for James Baldwin and Langston Hughes”.
Hughes left this world in 1967, alone in a Harlem hospital, taken by that damn cancer when he was 65 years old.