The elusive Langston Hughes

Hilton Als in The New Yorker:

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.
More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)