On more than one occasion I have been accused of disliking Langston Hughes. Untrue. Hughes was a great poet who wrote respectable poems. One of my favorites is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” There may be no more dignified image of the Negro in all of American literature. Likewise, his manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” remains a seminal part of any black poet’s education. It was part of mine. All poets should read it. The poem was published in 1921 and the essay in 1926, both before Hughes was twenty-five years old. And both feature the word Negro, which has always made Hughes a complicated figure for me. When Hughes uses it, it’s “respectable.” “Respectable” can be a problem. Consider the title of the recent James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro. As I recall, Baldwin never says “I am Not Your Negro” in I Am Not Your Negro. Near the end of the film he does say, “I am not your nigger,” which suggests what he might have titled the documentary. I can’t imagine Hughes making such a statement. He is very much our Negro. “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” is full of Negro nobility. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” another of Hughes’s seminal works, colors the word with esteem. The Nation solicited Hughes to write the piece as a response to “The Negro Art Hokum,” an essay George Schuyler published in the magazine the previous week. “Why should Negro artists of America vary from the national artistic norm?” Schuyler wrote, insisting what others called cultural distinctions were simple Negro stereotypes. Hughes argued, “No great poet has ever been afraid of being himself…but this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America.” He ends with a call to action:
Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing the Blues penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps, understand…We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
In a way, Hughes’s insistence that young Negro artists use their art to declare “I am a Negro—and beautiful” evolved into the “Black is Beautiful” chants of the Black Arts Movement. It was an evolution that largely left Hughes behind. The younger black writers were often too fearless and shameless. He’d made some noteworthy political refinements as he aged. In the 1920s and ’30s, when in his twenties and thirties, he wrote a direct, often sociopolitical (communist-tinged) poetry. By the 1940s, when he was middle-aged, he began to cloak his political ideas in prose. He wrote a friend to say he was “laying off political poetry for a while” and “going back to nature, Negroes, and love.” Nonetheless, in 1953, Joseph McCarthy and HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), called on him to “repudiate [his] former writings and philosophy” in the name of America. Hughes capitulated. “In some countries people are governed by rulers, and ordinary folks can’t do a thing about it,” he said, “But here all of us are a part of democracy. By taking an interest in our Government, and by treating our neighbors as we would like to be treated, each one of us can help make our country the most wonderful country in the world.”
Even as Hughes testified, the country’s young Negro writers were blackening. James Baldwin, who was more than two decades younger, was on television declaring, “I am not your nigger.” Baldwin was not a Hughesian Negro. Nor was he easily characterized as a black militant or black pacifist. He was allied with the forces for intellectual pragmatism, curiosity, compassion, and of course, love for black folk. In his 1962 “Letter From A Region In My Mind,” he moves beyond manifestos and calls to arms to meditate on blackness as a natural and deeply American way of being. In a core scene, he visits the home of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. He writes, “Power was the subject of the speeches I heard. We were offered, as Nation of Islam doctrine, historical and divine proof that all white people are cursed, and are devils, and are about to be brought down.” Mulling over the consequences of such a perspective, Baldwin arrives at a profound question:
What will happen to all that beauty? …When I sat at Elijah’s table and watched the baby, the women, and the men, and we talked about God’s—or Allah’s—vengeance, I wondered, when that vengeance was achieved, What will happen to all that beauty then?
The assassination of Malcolm X three years later was one of the chief triggers of the Black Arts Movement. Baldwin’s question was overwhelmed by the death, by the righteous vengeance he first senses in the company of Elijah Muhammad. The Black Arts became something like a secular and artistic extension of the Black Power movement. When Amiri Baraka recollected the aims of the movement he exclaimed: “We wanted an art that would actually reflect black life and its history and legacy of resistance and struggle!” His poem “Black Art” is a radical update of “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” It begins “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step” and later continues:
…we want “poems that kill.”
Assassin poems, Poems that shoot
guns. Poems that wrestle cops into alleys
and take their weapons…
Let there be no love poems written
until love can exist freely and
Baraka’s combative “blackness” overwhelms Hughes’s dignified “Negro” just as it has overwhelmed legions of white readers. (The people who see his poem as a violent poem seem more outraged by poems than violence.) It is not unreasonable to imagine the sort of vengeance Baraka indulges in “Black Art.” When scores of black people are captured, shackled, shipped, whipped, sold, submitted to every possible and impossible variety of violence by white people, what is the respectable response?
In 2014, after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a group of Cave Canem poets organized “Black Poets Speak Out” as a response. Hundreds of black poets across the US recorded videos of themselves reading poems, prefaced with the following words: “I am a black poet who will not remain silent while this nation murders black people. I have a right to be angry.” Some read their own poems, while others selected works by iconic writers. I chose Etheridge Knight’s poem, “For Langston Hughes.” In “Black Art” the rattling “Airplane poems, rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr / rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…tuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuhtuh / …rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…Setting fire and death to / whities ass” lampoon and highlight the ways the black poet will not remain silent. Knight’s poem displays the silence that comes in the aftermath of vengeance:
Another weaver of black dreams has gone
We sat in June Bug’s pad with the shades drawn
And the air thick with holy smoke. and we heard
The Lady sing Langston before we knew his name.
And when Black Bodies stopped swinging June
But, TG and I went out and swung on some white cats.
Now I don’t think the Mythmaker meant for us to do that
but we didn’t know what else to do.
Another weaver of black dreams has gone
In 1806, Fisher Ames offered a fairly simple definition of politics: “Politicks is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs.” He likely was not thinking about the politics of race, but race—especially as it relates to black and white Americans—certainly falls under the roof of “public affairs.” What sort of “good sense” is in “For Langston Hughes”? The call to action is coughed in “the holy smoke” of confusion. The poem itself is a confusion of facts. Reading the poem at a prison reading in 1968 and again thirteen years later at a Scranton library, Knight told the audience how Langston Hughes wrote “Strange Fruit.” He’s wrong. Jewish high school teacher Abel Meeropol wrote “Strange Fruit” in 1936 after seeing a photograph of a lynching. A few years later the song version was shared with Billie Holiday.
Could/Would Langston Hughes have written such a controversial song? Biographer Arnold Rampersad opened the second volume of his Hughes biography with something Hughes wrote in his notebooks a few years before he died: “Politics can be the graveyard of the poet.” The quote reinforces the image of the “social,” sensible but ultimately apolitical Hughes. Interestingly, Rampersad does not use the remainder of the passage in Hughes’ notes. A few lines later, he writes:
Concerning politics nothing I have said is true. A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Therefore, how can a poet keep out of politics? Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise you are dead.
As the sixty-two-year-old Hughes meditates on the role of politics and poetry, we see how one truth—“the poet exists within the boundaries of his country and people”—complicates but does not cancel out the twenty-four-year-old Hughes’s self-determinism: “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” Such qualities are evident in the title of Hughes’s final book The Panther and Lash: Poems of Our Time, published shortly after his death in 1967. The Panther alludes to “Black Panther,” a poem critiquing the strategies of the black power militancy: “The Panther in his desperate boldness / Wears no disguise, / Motivated by the truest / Of the oldest / Lies.” The lash, on the other hand, alludes to what Hughes calls the “white backlash” in his poem “The Backlash Blues.”
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages,
Send my son to Vietnam
You give me second class houses,
Second class schools.
Do you think that colored folks
Are just second class fools?
Like Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” “The Backlash Blues” is now less well-known than its corresponding protest song, made by Hughes’s close friend Nina Simone the same year as his death. Perhaps this is the Hughes poem Knight confused with “Strange Fruit.”
One reviewer of The Panther and Lash criticized Hughes for failing to “take sides politically” in the book: “We are tempted to ask, what are Hughes’s politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen.” It’s hard to read or hear “The Blacklash Blues” and still question Hughes’s “intellectual commitment” to politics. He was unwavering in his commitment to black culture, but that did not make him immune to political doubt. (Isn’t doubt often a byproduct of intellectual commitment?) Hughes enacts Fisher Ames’s extended definition of politics. Yes, “Politicks is the science of good sense, applied to public affairs, [but], as those are forever changing, what is wisdom today would be folly and perhaps, ruin tomorrow… [Politicks] cannot have fixed principles, from which a wise man would never swerve.”
It is in Hughes’s swerves and slants that a particular, peculiar, unpredictable political poetics emerges. Hughes was abundantly more complicated than the record shows. He endures, like his Negro of the River and Mountain, as a model of black poetics. He loved black people. He spoke out against oppression. He made his living as a poet. Yet we have few accounts of the ticks of his politics, the intimacies of his personality. Knight’s poem is, in part, a rare and intriguing Hughes ode. The moniker “Mythmaker” adds a new texture to the noble Negro. Knight’s confusion of “Strange Fruit” and “Backlash Blues” suggests the confused public image of Hughes. His image is more social than political, more conservative than radical, but a closer look reveals the blurred edges. There has long been speculation about Hughes’s sexual tastes, for example. Yes, it’s none of our business, but one might as well ask about Hughes’s general love life. He is one of American literature’s most ambiguous bachelors. There is no great muse, male or female; there is seemingly no great love. Supposedly the HUAC threatened to expose Hughes as a homosexual if he didn’t comply. It hurts to think of Hughes’s capitulation. I can respect wanting to maintain privacy. In any case, the reasons for Hughes’ capitulation before HUAC are not especially heroic. They’re evidence of his nuance.
Amiri Baraka’s “Black Art” speaker has no patience for nuance. A decade younger than Baldwin and more than three decades younger than Hughes, Baraka is colored by the deaths of Emmett Till and Malcolm X. LeRoi Jones had been fashioning himself into something of a Greenwich Village Negro, but after the assassination of Malcolm X, he changed his name to Amiri Baraka and moved to Harlem. Factions of young black poets and artists sprang up alongside the Black Power movement (also known as the Civil Rights Movement). Though (or because) Etheridge Knight was in prison in Indiana for much of it, he counted himself an embodiment of Black Art. Like “For Langston Hughes,” many of the poems in his 1968 debut Poems from Prison are warmed by the fires of the movement. Four of the final poems in the book feature Malcolm X: “Portrait of Malcolm,” “For Malcolm a Year After,” “It Was a Funky Deal,” and “The Sun Came.” Knight married Sonia Sanchez, one of the leading young Black Arts poets and travelled the black poetry circuit in black shades and a black beret with a raised black fist. None of this saved Knight from continued bouts with addiction and law enforcement. In letters to his poetry editor, Dudley Randall, he talked of his disappointment in the movement. “I came out of prison naive as far as the movement is concerned,” he wrote in a 1970 letter to Randall. “I was (still am) ready to give up my life if necessary for my people. I was committed, totally. And, man, I found a whole lot of people bullshitting. That really blew my mind.”
“What will happen to all that beauty?” Baldwin asks. Knight’s poem “For Langston Hughes” suggests that beauty will become bewilderment, the opposite of closure. But it is not quite regret the men feel: they didn’t know what else to do. I’m reminded of the violence in Ferguson and Baltimore. Media coverage of riots—especially black folk rioting—is always heavy on disdain. Rioting feels like a default response at this point, an act hovering somewhere between anarchy and revolution. Is violence not a viable response to a violent state? Yes, violence can be a political act. It’s not a question of rightness or righteousness; it’s what happens after the act. Admittedly, seeing the flaws of “For Langston Hughes” as evidence of a political poetics requires a bit of magical reading. One could argue it is the opposite of a political poem. These dudes aren’t grieving revolutionaries, they’re just high. What moves the poem into the sphere of political poetics is its blend of confusion and fantasy. Where else am I to find a model for my own poetics of politics these days? I’ve been trying to work it out in poems. I’ve tried to avoid the righteousness of a Noble Negro or an outraged militant. I’ve tried to remain tethered to the paradox and the bewilderment of poetics and politics.
AMERICAN SONNET FOR MY PAST AND FUTURE ASSASSIN
Phlegmy schematic registers of bravado,
Colored, old tuxedoed restroom attendants,
Stars with eyes, velvet spirals of stairs, a theater
Filled with pretty people staring at a white boy
Band of Dylann Roof look-a-likes in loose white
T shirts & pouts spouting Slim Shady lines
For the kind of people who call words “vulgar”
And the White people who say, “White people
Love to play around white people,”
And the Black people who say, “Black people
Love to play around Black people,”
Every black body, every black Bobby Brown,
Every brown Bobby White & brown Bobby Black,
Every Black in the lobby of the theater at the bar.
Drawings by Terrance Hayes.