Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is justifiably known as the Poet Laureate of the African-American people. He consciously carried on the unfinished equality struggles bequeathed by African-American history and of his own day. Not a poem, story or libretto by him did not speak out against racial oppression and give voice to aspirations of first-class citizenship in all walks of life. Always with him the equality cause was linked with the cause of the multi-racial working class as a whole and oppressed people and people of color world wide.
Outstanding is the working-class content of this life and writings of Langston Hughes. He grew up in a struggling working class family in Jim Crow USA. From his first job, in 7th grade as a cleaner in a hotel, until about age thirty, when he was able to do writing full-time, he worked at many jobs. At the same time he always wrote, invoking the life and culture of the African American people.
Even after his momentous decision to do writing full-time, he was a working journalist from the 1930s to the 1960s. From the 1940s to the 1960s he regularly wrote a column for The Chicago Defender. This column consisted of imaginary conversations with Jesse B. Simple, a Black worker in Harlem. It made clear that while his writing was inspired by and addressed to the African American people as a whole and the working class as a whole, his main focus was on left-leaning Black workers.
In one conversation Simple says, “Is it red to want to earn wages? Is it red to want to keep your job? And not to want to take no stuff off bosses?”
From an early age Langston Hughes identified with working-class internationalism and to the role of workers in basic social change.
In 1917 when the Russian working class came to power and withdrew their country from World War I, Langston Hughes and his fellow students at Central High School in Cleveland held a celebration for the Revolution and its leader V.I. Lenin.
Of the Soviet Union, which he visited in the 1930s, he wrote, “The daily papers picture the Bolsheviks as the greatest devils on earth, but I couldn’t see how they could be so bad if they had done away with race hatred and landlords – two evils that I knew first hand.”
He made clear his admiration for Communists. For instance, he wrote about Mother Ella Reeve Bloor, a leader of the Communist Party USA and a women’s rights leader. “She battled the capitalists tooth and nail for seventy years.”
He himself was involved in the defense of the Scottsboro youths in the early 1930s, which was led by the International Labor Defense and the Communist Party. His poem “Scottsboro” is a monument to the worldwide movement that saved the lives of these nine innocent Black youths from the death penalty.
The profoundity and courage of Langston Hughes shines through with his opposition to imperialist war. In his poem on World War I, “The Colored Soldier,” he says the war was supposed to be for democracy, but returning African American soldiers were greeted with lynchings. In “Give Us Our Peace” he shows that military buildup was at the expense of schools and decent housing.
He supported the Spanish Republic (1936-1939) against the fascist overthrow by Franco and his generals and the armies of Hitler and Mussolini. Support for the Spanish Republic was an important part of Hughes’ credo of opposition to war and fascism.
In Spain, Hughes was a correspondent for the African American press. His “beat” was the interracial Abraham Lincoln Brigade that put their lives on the line to fight fascism in Spain. Hughes himself put his life on the line, as he went to the front with the Brigade as battles raged.
The defeat of the Spanish Republic meant combating fascism in World War II. Hughes showed deep understanding of the issues and outcome of the war, as it was being fought. Hughes linked the struggle against fascism with the struggle against racism. In the poem “How About it, Dixie,” he wrote:
Freedom’s not just
To be won Over There.
It means Freedom at home, too –
Now – right here!
In the postwar period there were both advances in democratic rights and vicious racist, anticommunist attempts to halt these advances. The bigots targeted Hughes.
Langston gave the bigots his answer to their threats by speaking out and writing more. He also gave his answer in a statement, “Concerning Red Baiting”(1963) in which he said “The organizations which have attacked me are, for the most part, the most anti-Negro, anti-Jewish, anti-labor groups in our country.”
His poetry of the 1960s gave invaluable support to the resistance and equality struggles of the African American people in the South and in the North. He combined support with vistas of ultimate victory. For example in “Birmingham Sunday” (September 15, 1965) he wrote:
Four little girls
Might be awakened
some day soon
By songs upon the breeze
As yet unfelt among
the magnolia trees
Langston Hughes sought basic solutions to oppression. For example in “Dinner: Guest: Me” he wrote about being invited to a dinner engagement at which well-heeled hosts discussed the “Negro problem.” His response in this poem was:
To be a Problem on
Park Avenue at Eight
Is not so bad.
Solutions to the Problem
Of course wait.
Years ago he had already pointed to socialism as the basic solution to the nightmare of capitalism. He now restated this understanding in a conversation with the entire working class, indicating their power, because of their position in production to bring about a basic transition. In “If You Would” he wrote:
You could stop the
factory whistle blowing,
Stop the mine machinery
Stop the atom bombs
Stop the battleships
Stop the merchant
ships from sailing,
Stop the jail house keys
If you would
Langston Hughes is of our time. His linking of his writing with the struggles against racism, working-class exploitation, poetry, war and capitalism is of first rate importance today as Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft assault innocents abroad and the democratic rights of the American people – in the name of war on terrorism. His writing will continue to be deeply inspiring in the struggle through the achievement of socialism in our land. Through it all, the life and writing of Langston Hughes are unbending in their inclusiveness. In one of his last poems, “Dream of Freedom” he wrote:
This dream today embattled
With its back against the wall –
To save the dream for one
It must be saved for all –
Our Dream of freedom.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is part of a larger article on Hughes’ life.