PDA

View Full Version : Hilton Als on Langston Hughes



William Haskins
02-21-2015, 02:24 AM
great new yorker essay on the poet and his carefully crafted persona:


By the time the British artist Isaac Julien’s iconic short essay-film “Looking for Langston” was released, in 1989, Julien’s ostensible subject, the enigmatic poet and race man Langston Hughes, had been dead for twenty-two years, but the search for his “real” story was still ongoing. There was a sense—particularly among gay men of color, like Julien, who had so few “out” ancestors and wanted to claim the prolific, uneven, but significant writer as one of their own—that some essential things about Hughes had been obscured or disfigured in his work and his memoirs. Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, and transplanted to New York City as a strikingly handsome nineteen-year-old, Hughes became, with the publication of his first book of poems, “The Weary Blues” (1926), a prominent New Negro: modern, pluralistic in his beliefs, and a member of what the folklorist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston called “the niggerati,” a loosely formed alliance of black writers and intellectuals that included Hurston, the author and diplomat James Weldon Johnson, the openly gay poet and artist Richard Bruce Nugent, and the novelists Nella Larsen, Jessie Fauset, and Wallace Thurman (whose 1929 novel about color fixation among blacks, “The Blacker the Berry,” conveys some of the energy of the time).

In a 1926 essay for The Nation, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes described the group, which came together during the Harlem Renaissance, when hanging out uptown was considered a lesson in cool:

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

And yet, in his personal life, Hughes did not stand on top of the mountain, proclaiming who he was or what he thought. One of the architects of black political correctness, he saw as threatening any attempt to expose black difference or weakness in front of a white audience. In his approach to the work of other black artists, in particular, he was excessively inclusive, enthusiastic to the point of self-effacement, as if black creativity were a great wave that would wash away the psychic scars of discrimination. Hughes was uncomfortable when younger black writers, such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (whom Hughes mentored from the day after he arrived in Harlem, in 1936, until it was no longer convenient for Ellison to be associated with the less careful craftsman), criticized other black writers. Hughes’s reluctance to reveal the cracks in the black world—which is to say, his own world—curtailed not only what he was able to achieve as an artist but what he was able to express as a man.

Instead of coming to grips with himself and his potential, he developed what he considered to be a palatable or marketable public persona.http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner

Ken
02-21-2015, 02:52 AM
A chisel has a flat, blunt end, yet it's much more effective than an implement with a pointed tip when it comes to certain things. Just something to consider.

William Haskins
02-21-2015, 02:55 AM
“don't trust children with edge tools. don't trust man, great god, with more power than he has until he has learned to use that little better. what a hell we should make of the world if we could do what we would!” ― ralph waldo emerson

Ken
02-21-2015, 03:01 AM
Next time I vote I will write yer quote ^ on the ballot and leave the boxes blank. (Granted I can get it to scan?)

ps What I meant by the above is that writers sometimes are better off limiting their scope. If they include too much their message may get lost or obsucred. In this case being both black and gay and doing that all in print for public consumption might've been too much to juggle at the time. Bless Langston for just achieving one effectively. Not to say the essayist doesn't put across a sound perspective. Definitely worth consideration.

nighttimer
02-23-2015, 08:40 PM
Langston Hughes has always been my favorite poet infusing Negro hope, Negro dreams and Negro rage in his work. I understand why it was important for Isaac Julien then and Hilton Als now to claim Hughes as a gay brother. Hughes is no longer around to protest otherwise.

Hughes remains as elusive in death as he did in life. The presence of gays and lesbians is part and parcel of the Harlem Renaissance, but for every Alain Locke there are many others like Hughes who remained closeted from the world for reasons unknown.

Thanks for the link, William. Any excuse to read about Hughes is a good one. :Thumbs:

Kylabelle
02-23-2015, 09:00 PM
A book of Hughes' letters was recently published, early this month I believe.

This article quotes a letter from Hughes to Ezra Pound (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/02/20/langston-hughes-s-letter-to-ezra-pound.html). They corresponded for a while as Hughes shared Pound's appreciation of ethnologist Leo Frobenius.

The book looks very interesting with a gorgeous cover photo. The style and tone of the letter to Pound is interesting also, though I'd not be able to say quite why. I guess I felt I could connect with Hughes' character a little, as I read it.

Anyway, likely due to the book release, there are quite a few articles right now about Hughes.

Jamesaritchie
02-24-2015, 12:19 AM
And still we never learn that writing is about the words, not the man behind them. Even when some just can't resist looking at the man, how about looking at his as just a man, rather than as a BLACK man, let alone a Gay Black man. Even Baldwin can't manage it.

Though I'm starting to think everyone who ever lived before 1950 was both gay and black.

Typical New Yorker article. It's all sweat and no labor.

Lillith1991
02-24-2015, 12:30 AM
And still we never learn that writing is about the words, not the man behind them. Even when some just can't resist looking at the man, how about looking at his as just a man, rather than as a BLACK man, let alone a Gay Black man. Even Baldwin can't manage it.

Though I'm starting to think everyone who ever lived before 1950 was both gay and black.

Typical New Yorker article. It's all sweat and no labor.

Oh good lord! Listen James, there's nothing wrong with people wanting role models to look up to that look like them. Maybe Hughes was gay and closeted, maybe he was Bi, maybe he was a silent ally, and maybe was just shrewd and didn't want to alienate people. We don't know which one it is for sure because the man is long dead, and either way he and others of his ilk still inspire Black writers today. That's a good thing.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 03:02 AM
Times were much harder on gays than they are today. Much harder. Many alive today don't remember just how hard it was. We should cut the man some slack and just enjoy his poetry.

nighttimer
02-24-2015, 07:18 AM
And still we never learn that writing is about the words, not the man behind them. Even when some just can't resist looking at the man, how about looking at his as just a man, rather than as a BLACK man, let alone a Gay Black man. Even Baldwin can't manage it.

Because being a BLACK man, let alone a Gay Black man was something Baldwin never shrank from. Hughes was more secretive in his sexual preferences, but he never saw anything remotely diminishing about being a Black man either.

Being proud you are Black and being proud you are Gay and Black is not a negative, not a drawback, not a liability in any way, shape or form except for those for whom being reminded of Blackness and Gayness is a negative, a drawback and a liability.

Perhaps that's because Black men who embrace their Blackness have always been seen as a threat because to do so is to reject Whiteness. That is an heresy in a country where trying to be as much like White people is the highest achievement Blacks should aspire to.

White people don't like that aspiration questioned or threatened.

But that's their problem and I'm not terribly concerned about their problems. Langston, certainly Black and likely gay wouldn't have either for reasons he delineated in "Me and the Mule."

My old mule
He's gota grin on his face.
He's been a mule so long
He's forgotten about his race.

I'm like that old mule --
Black -- and don't give a damn!
You got to take me
Like I am.

Damn skippy. :rolleyes:


Though I'm starting to think everyone who ever lived before 1950 was both gay and black.

You say that like it's a bad thing.


Typical New Yorker article. It's all sweat and no labor.

Typical Jamesritchie critique. It's all heat and no light.

Lillith1991
02-24-2015, 08:08 AM
Times were much harder on gays than they are today. Much harder. Many alive today don't remember just how hard it was. We should cut the man some slack and just enjoy his poetry.

This thinking is flawed in my opinion. Yes things were harder‚ but others still lived there lives out in the open despite that. Cutting someone slack and respecting their choice isn’t the same thing. I respect his choice but am saddened that we will never be able to do more than speculate on his orientation because of it. Even so I still think he was one of the greatest American poets to ever live.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 08:36 AM
How can one respect his choice and not cut him some slack?

Talk about flawed logic.

Lillith1991
02-24-2015, 09:38 AM
How can one respect his choice and not cut him some slack?

Talk about flawed logic.

Talk about not being able to take criticism of your opinions by another person. Some people , of which I'm one, can understand why someone would stay in the closet at the time in which he lived while not defaulting to cutting him slack. It is an equally valid choice for someone of the time as being "out" was, especially someone also facing racism on a scale we can't imagine. To cut him slack I would have to find shame in his choice in the first place, and I don't. Just as I don't find shame in someone in the modern world who lives in a far less tolerant society than the west keeping such information close to themselves.

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 03:24 PM
People, please. It's a good discussion. I ask that you not ruin it by sniping at each other. Focus your remarks on the content of posts and not on the person posting.

Thank you.

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 04:20 PM
I went looking for poems by Hughes that have been released into the public domain, and found this site (http://www.ourenglish.org/Wengupian2/hughes.html) which has some fine poems.

It also has a short bio of Hughes containing this passage:


While in grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, Hughes was elected class poet. Hughes stated in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm. "I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet."

Being Black was clearly a factor in bringing Hughes to poetry (honestly, how could it not have been?) but I strongly suspect that if this event had not happened, the poet in him would have emerged some other way.


Democracy
by Langston Hughes
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I'm dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow's bread.

Freedom
Is a strong seed
Planted
In a great need.

I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.

nighttimer
02-24-2015, 06:33 PM
Being Black was clearly a factor in bringing Hughes to poetry (honestly, how could it not have been?) but I strongly suspect that if this event had not happened, the poet in him would have emerged some other way.

It is a curious notion that one should suppress that which makes them whole, human and unique because accentuating their individuality separates them from the homogenous pack.

Langston Hughes lived life as a Black man and most likely a closeted Black man. His business, not mine. Why he should neuter his Blackness to become something he could never be frankly baffles me and frankly, it's a little insulting to even suggest a gay man, a lesbian, a Latino, a disabled person, or anyone deemphasize themselves to be nothing more than yet another jar of mayonnaise.

To fling my arms wide
In some place of the sun,
To whirl and to dance
Till the white day is done.
Then rest at cool evening
Beneath a tall tree
While night comes on gently,
Dark like me-
That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide
In the face of the sun,
Dance! Whirl! Whirl!
Till the quick day is done.
Rest at pale evening...
A tall, slim tree...
Night coming tenderly
Black like me.

Langston Hughes was Black. He didn't have a problem with that. Why anybody else would is a question they need to ask themselves.

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 06:41 PM
It is a curious notion that one should suppress that which makes them whole, human and unique because accentuating their individuality separates them from the homogenous pack.


I apologize for being slow, but I am not following this sentence at all. Can you unpack it for me?

nighttimer
02-24-2015, 07:14 PM
It is a curious notion that one should suppress that which makes them whole, human and unique because accentuating their individuality separates them from the homogenous pack.


I apologize for being slow, but I am not following this sentence at all. Can you unpack it for me?

Certainly. If the first thing writers are told is to write what you know, a woman can write about being a woman, a Black gay man can write about being Black and gay and how that factors into his masculinity. We are greater than the sum of our parts and the circumstances we come up in.

And maybe there's some interesting stories in there somewhere. But if Jimi Hendrix didn't play guitar the way Eric Clapton or Pete Townsend did are their ways "better" than Hendrix's? Of course not. They are just different and what's "better" is a subjective matter of personal taste. Trying to tap down what makes an individual unique may lead to some degree of crossover success, but is it honest? Is it authentic? Or is as fake as hell?

James Baldwin, ally and occasional critic of Langston Hughes, put it best when he said, "The American ideal, after all, is that everyone should be as much alike as possible." That should be a horrifying thought to any writer.

White writers don't have to concern themselves with crossing over to a Black audience, but Black writers/artists/musicians/poets do. The Black audience is loyal, but the White audience is large and has the loot. It's tempting to go the Lionel Ritchie route, but it's not for everybody.

Baldwin and Hughes achieved mainstream acceptance and success without diluting or negating their Blackness. That is a source of personal pride for me because the goal of the Civil Rights struggle was not to simply integrate that which was segregated. It was also to assert that every human being is created equal with equal rights. Becoming Artificial White People was never the objective.

Why pride is taken in what a Hughes or Baldwin accomplishes is described by Baldwin again:


“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and recreate yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in face — this may sound very strange — you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”

I hope that helps, Kylabelle.

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 07:20 PM
Thanks. I would certainly not like the statement you quoted from me to be taken as opposed to any of that, with which I agree completely.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 07:33 PM
Talk about not being able to take criticism of your opinions by another person. Some people , of which I'm one, can understand why someone would stay in the closet at the time in which he lived while not defaulting to cutting him slack. It is an equally valid choice for someone of the time as being "out" was, especially someone also facing racism on a scale we can't imagine. To cut him slack I would have to find shame in his choice in the first place, and I don't. Just as I don't find shame in someone in the modern world who lives in a far less tolerant society than the west keeping such information close to themselves.

How is the phrase, "cut him some slack" offensive to you?

Ari Meermans
02-24-2015, 08:06 PM
How is the phrase, "cut him some slack" offensive to you?

I'm not Lillith1991, but she has answered that:


To cut him slack I would have to find shame in his choice in the first place, and I don't.

But "cutting slack" is more than that; it conveys an underlying assumption of the power or a right to allow a behavior that is considered unacceptable. If someone were to behave offensively toward me, and I knowing they have just experienced a trauma in their life, decide to cut them some slack, it is well within my power and is my right to do so if I so choose. Who someone is or how they choose to live their life--when it in no way touches or affects mine--calls for respect if not acceptance, not the cutting of slack. I haven't the right to determine the acceptability of their choices in that instance; iow, to cut them some slack.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 08:26 PM
I'm not Lillith1991, but she has answered that:



But "cutting slack" is more than that; it conveys an underlying assumption of the power or a right to allow a behavior that is considered unacceptable. If someone were to behave offensively toward me, and I knowing they have just experienced a trauma in their life, decide to cut them some slack, it is well within my power and is my right to do so if I so choose. Who someone is or how they choose to live their life--when it in no way touches or affects mine--calls for respect if not acceptance, not the cutting of slack. I haven't the right to determine the acceptability of their choices in that instance; iow, to cut them some slack.

I was under the impression that people were upset that he had not found it within himself to come out. It was in that sense that I made the comment of cutting him some slack: seeing how we did not live his life so we can not judge.

Ari Meermans
02-24-2015, 08:43 PM
I was under the impression that people were upset that he had not found it within himself to come out. It was in that sense that I made the comment of cutting him some slack: seeing how we did not live his life so we can not judge.

I'm sure we're all in agreement with that last part, which I placed in bold. But, oy! Maybe someone else can explain why the phrase "cut him some slack" is inappropriate and offensive under these circumstances better than I apparently can.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 08:51 PM
Are people in this thread upset that Hughes did not come out?

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 09:03 PM
Are people in this thread upset that Hughes did not come out?

I'm not, and I haven't read any of the other posts to mean others were either.

I don't even particularly care to speculate if he was or was not -- while coming out is something I support and applaud if it is the person's choice, and as part of normalizing (in society's views) a human experience that should never have been derided, I also believe it is not everyone's business what someone does or chooses to do in his or her intimate life. Even public figures have the right to some privacy and dignity.

Yet I can also sympathize with a point of view that takes heart from admirable historical figures who have publically shared their orientation.

Speaking only for myself here.

ETA: The article linked in the OP seems to take that disappointed stance far more than anyone who has posted here.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 09:18 PM
Yet I can also sympathize with a point of view that takes heart from admirable historical figures who have publically shared their orientation.

Where did I say I did not...?


ETA: The article linked in the OP seems to take that disappointed stance far more than anyone who has posted here.

Yes...and as I read these respose to that afticle I saw that same disappointment reflected in their aegument. Which looks to me a bit like jackals ripping up a carcass.

Kylabelle
02-24-2015, 09:26 PM
Where did I say I did not...?

You didn't say you did not. I was making a statement to the whole thread, and whomever else is reading here, not only to you, nor was I implying anything.



Yes...and as I read these respose to that afticle I saw that same disappointment reflected in their aegument. Which looks to me a bit like jackals ripping up a carcass.


I believe it would help if you didn't infer quite so much from the posts of others. Asking direct questions is much better than assuming you've read correctly. Which you did, and I expect that if we are patient, anyone who DOES feel critical of or disappointed in Hughes for not coming out, presuming he was in fact gay, that person will speak up and make his or her case.

nighttimer
02-24-2015, 09:56 PM
Are people in this thread upset that Hughes did not come out?

Personally, no. Coming out is a highly personal and private decision and nobody should be berated or outed to serve someone else's political and social agenda.

That said, if you are closeted publicly and active privately and in your public life you are actively and consciously working against the interests of gay people (see numerous politicians and clergy), then you're a hypocrite and probably deserve to be dragged out of your closet kicking and screaming all the way.

There are rumors that Queen Latifah, John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey are all on the down low creep. Maybe they are and maybe they aren't. Maybe it's none of my business.

My enjoyment and appreciation of Langston Hughes is neither enhanced nor diminished regarding his sexual orientation.

Neegh
02-24-2015, 10:22 PM
That said, if you are closeted publicly and active privately and in your public life you are actively and consciously working against the interests of gay people (see numerous politicians and clergy), then you're a hypocrite and probably deserve to be dragged out of your closet kicking and screaming all the way.

I am more inclined to take that attatude today than at any time before 1989 or so. Today it's far less about life and brutal death than it was before then. Maybe Hughes--if he was gay--believed he had already given enough reasons to make him a target to be getting on with.


My enjoyment and appreciation of Langston Hughes is neither enhanced nor diminished regarding his sexual orientation.

Agreed. It has no bearing what so ever.

Lillith1991
02-25-2015, 12:06 AM
Are people in this thread upset that Hughes did not come out?

No, not in the least. Or I know for sure that I'm not. He lived at time when being gay could get a white person killed, and being a POC got many non-white people killed. He wasn't only facing potential rascim and homophobia from outside the Black community, but additional homophobia from within it.

nighttimer
02-25-2015, 12:50 AM
No, not in the least. Or I know for sure that I'm not. He lived at time when being gay could get a white person killed, and being a POC got many non-white people killed. He wasn't only facing potential rascim and homophobia from outside the Black community, but additional homophobia from within it.

Sadly, that hasn't changed much within the Black community.

I recall when Michael Sam was drafted last year by the St. Louis Rams and the camera crews caught him planting a big kiss on his White boyfriend. Sam caught ten different kinds of hell on Black Twitter and Facebook. The brothers were mad he was gay and the sisters were mad he kissed a White guy.

Lillith1991
02-25-2015, 01:10 AM
Sadly, that hasn't changed much within the Black community.

I recall when Michael Sam was drafted last year by the St. Louis Rams and the camera crews caught him planting a big kiss on his White boyfriend. Sam caught ten different kinds of hell on Black Twitter and Facebook. The brothers were mad he was gay and the sisters were mad he kissed a White guy.

Yeah, that was something I noticed too. Our community is slowly progressing and getting more accepting, but that change is very slow. By that contrast, the gay community is still very racists in its views a lot of the time. Both are working towards being better, but are clearly not there yet. I can't count how many times I've experienced even extremely mild and unthinking homophobia from the Black community, but gotten shot down by other LGBT Black people when I mention it. And I've had the same thing when I mention racism within the LGBT community to Queer people who are White.

Which reminds me, I never saw the big deal with Sam's lover being white. I'm mixed race myself, and I take pride in being mixed and being Black.