The great gay writer Langston Hughes had a tough, cold Christmas in 1950 He had written the libretto for the opera The Barrier which turned out to be a commercial and critical failure; his book Simple Speaks His Mind received terrific reviews that did not translate to sales. He was living in Harlem with friends while trying to write. So instead of giving his circle of friends Christmas gifts, he sent out typewritten postcards that artfully, wittily explained the state of his finances.
If times were not so doggone hard
I might send you a gift.
But since I’m broke as broke can be,
Here’s just a Christmas lift:
Langston Hughes was a gay man who, because of his era and his community, was deep 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 paternal 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 NYC neighborhood, an era of unprecedented creative, artistic energy that we now have dubbed The Harlem Renaissance.
This Month, Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library exhibited Hughes’s 1950 postcards, as well as Christmas cards he received from friends. The cards were selected from 17 boxes at the library that contain Hughes ephemera from 1935 to 1966. Hughes had donated of his papers to Yale, before his passing in 1967.
His typewritten Christmas postcards from 1950 reflect a period when he was low on dough though his friendships remained abundant. He addressed his wide circle of friends that year with witty verse that tell how times were tough and still convey resilience and joy.
Hughes wrote a more optimistic poem Christmas Eve: Nearing Midnight In New York in 1965:
Our old Statue of Liberty
Looks down almost with a smile
As the Island of Manhattan
Awaits the morning of the Child
Yet in 1950, the Christmas postcards show his writing wit was bristling. For those who may have had a hard year leading up to these winter holidays, there’s some defiant joy to glean from his wry greetings:
Photos courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Archive, Yale University