The Politics and Poetry of Langston Hughes
By Jabari Asim
Monday, June 7, 2004; 10:17 AM
While I am not especially enamored with John Kerry's sputtering campaign, I admit to being intrigued by its latest attempt to come up with a catchy slogan.
In recent appearances, the Democrats' main man has invoked the opening lines of a 1938 poem by Langston Hughes. "Let America be America again," the poem begins, before offering a searing indictment of our nation's failure to meet its glorious potential. I'm pleased whenever poetry captures a bit of attention, although Hughes' lifelong affinity for leftist politics initially makes him seem an odd choice for a candidate clinging so tenaciously to the timid center.
Hughes was never a member of the Communist Party, but he championed its politics for a time, a not uncommon stance among blacks in the 1930s who had begun to despair of ever achieving full equality in the United States. Like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson, Hughes eventually stumbled badly by not stepping forward to condemn Stalin's murderous excesses in the Soviet Union. While that regrettable failure acquires minor significance when compared to the monumental achievements of Hughes' long career, it nonetheless provides a tempting target for anyone looking to find fault with Kerry.
William F. Buckley, in a bizarre column inexplicably comparing Hughes' political opinions with those of George Washington Carver, contended that the poet had a "very specific view about history," a perspective Buckley attempted to discern from a stanza in a 1932 Hughes poem called "Goodbye Christ." Hughes' ideas about history could be more logically gleaned from later works such as "A Pictorial History of the Negro" (1956) or by examining his entire body of work -- not by reading six lines from a poem that he specifically repudiated in 1940.
Both "Goodbye Christ" and "Let America Be America" were part of "A New Song," a pamphlet of Hughes' radical verse published by the International Workers Order in the same year that the newly formed House Un-American Activities Committee began compiling its dossier on him. His dispiriting appearance before HUAC in 1953 undoubtedly influenced him to distance himself from the poems, which he chose to exclude when he published his "Selected Poems" in 1959.
The truly patriotic should be inclined to forgive Hughes for mistakes he made in his immaturity. Dismissing him because of his early communist sympathies would be roughly tantamount to condemning our commander in chief for his history of problem drinking in early adulthood. "I do not have a perfect record as a youth," George W. Bush said during the 2000 campaign, discussing a drunk-driving arrest that occurred when he was 30. "When I was young, I did a lot of foolish things." If such an explanation suffices for a candidate for president, it must surely be good enough for a poet.
Not that Hughes' reputation needs salvaging. While he has always confounded the critics, he has never suffered for popular acclaim. He was being called the poet laureate of black America as early as 1926, and his constituency has expanded over time. When the Academy of American Poets ran an Internet poll in 2001 to determine which poet should be honored with a postage stamp, Hughes was the top vote-getter. His stamp was issued in 2002.
Hughes' populist inclinations earned him the scorn of critics more than his socialist leanings did, according to Maryemma Graham. She is a professor of English at the University of Kansas and co-chair of the Langston Hughes National Poetry Project, which attempts to build a broader audience for Hughes' work and poetry in general. (I have served as one of several unpaid consultants to the project.)
Graham told me, "He was misread by the vast majority of critics, and I think that led them to characterize him as simplistic and not complex enough. He refused to put poetry on such a high pedestal that it was not accessible to the average person. He was writing at a time when poetry was getting farther and farther from readers and moving into the academy, where Hughes felt it didn't belong. He was saying to critics, 'I don't need your approval because what I have is readers."'
Hughes continually devised new ways to communicate with his audience, Graham says, including blues poetry, jazz poetry and gospel plays. "This man was an inventor of new forms that we still don't have the language to talk about yet," she added.
Endlessly inventive yet linked to the common man by a bond of mutual affection. Perhaps it isn't so hard to see why Kerry would want to be associated with an artist who can claim such qualities. Whether he is worthy of the connection is still to be determined.
© 2004 washingtonpost.com