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Some notes on Langston Hughes

One of the moments from my early 20s that precipitated a mild crisis was the recognition that everything I’d been taught was partial. It was a discovery that occurred largely because of travel. Listening to the narrative of history from a different perspective, seeing that society could be structured otherwise and function just fine, and learning that there were plenty of other “canonical” writings (they just weren’t American or British)… it all made the world brand new to me.

It also left me feeling deeply distressed. Who could I trust in the world if I couldn’t even believe my favorite teacher’s accounts of history?

I thought about that over the weekend as I started reading Langston Hughes in the Hispanic World and Haiti. I tracked the book down in an effort to learn something–anything–about the time Langston Hughes spent in Mexico, a fact I learned at the Smithsonian Anacostia’s exhibit, The African Presence in Mexico.

Langston Hughes was certainly a figure in elementary, middle school, and high school English classes. I probably even had to memorize his “Mother to Son” (the “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” poem) at some point. I thought his poetry was dreadful. I still do, even as I recognize its importance, and his.

But the idea that he was in Mexico and the Caribbean and that he considered his experiences and friendships there to be seminal intrigued me. In all of his most frequently anthologized poetry–the crystal stair type stuff that’s the subject of so many Harlem Renaissance unit lessons in the United States– Latin America makes no overt appearance at all.

In fact, little if any of Hughes’ biography makes it into lessons (at least not in any classrooms I was in). And yet, his background is so complex that were it known more widely, it would defy his easy categorization among the Harlem Renaissance poets. For one thing, both parents were biracial, both great-grandmothers were African American and both great-grandfathers were White (and one was even Jewish).

There are so many other fascinating anecdotes in Hughes’ family history (a first African American elected to Congress, for one), but for me it’s all a footnote to Hughes’ travels through Mexico, Cuba, and Haiti, as well as his bilingualism. Not only did he speak Spanish fluently, but a significant amount of his work was translating the poetry of his Mexican contemporaries into English.

It’s not that any of this information should come as a surprise. Not that an African American of Hughes’ day and age shouldn’t have been interested in traveling through Latin America or that he couldn’t have been interested in learning Spanish… and so he did. It’s just that none of these kinds of details are ever presented about African American writers when we study them in the US classroom, and this despite the fact that African American writers and artists traveled extensively and they often did so as the result of exile. In some cases, exile was self-imposed. Often, though, it was the result of such social marginalization as to make exile the only logical and viable option.

Hughes was highly regarded in Mexico and Cuba, where he developed deep and lasting relationships with poets and other writers, many of whom are now considered to be the most important writers of their generation, like Cuba’s Nicolas Guillen. Hughes’ arrival in country was an event heralded in local newspapers. Translating his work was considered both a useful and industrious undertaking, one worth honoring and celebrating.

For Hughes, his travels in Mexico and the Caribbean helped him arrive at a more astute conceptualization of blackness (or, in the parlance of the day, “negritude”), as well as a sense of just how closely linked the darkness of skin color and one’s economic conditions and social status often are.

The degree to which Hughes’ travels shaped his thought and his poetry make the absence of this information in the teaching of his poetry painful, regardless of the reason-  ignorance, oversight, or just outright ethnocentrism. I feel like some enormous yet previously invisible void has been filled, 3/4 of the context finally colored in.

This is both saddening and exciting… realizing just how much is left to learn.

Have you had a similar experience of learning something new about a person or event that has been virtually canonized in your previous studies? Share yours below.