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Dig and Be Dug in Return
The life and work of Langston Hughes
By Alan Bisbort

James Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was, in his quaint day, known as a Negro. He was also, by profession, a poet at a time when that equally quaint term meant something. Though time has been kind to Langston Hughes, it has not necessarily been kind to Negroes or to poetry. They have both been given their own "national months," to be sure–February and April, respectively–but that's where the discussion will have to end because the third rail of political correctness now demands that anything related to black history, even patent lies or Afrocentrist myths, is sacrosanct, and everything that is vomited, shat or slammed upon a page is now considered poetry.

That this is unfair to genuine heroes and heroines of African-American history, not to mention our nation's literary legacy, is beside the point.

This reviewer has enjoyed Langston Hughes' remarkable poetry and prose (his series of short stories about the character "Simple" are too often overlooked) for many years. But it was only after reading Arnold Rampersad's massive (and definitive) biography The Life of Langston Hughesnewly revised and reissued in a handsome 2-volume edition by Oxford University Press–that I discovered some things about Langston Hughes that were never included in discussions about him over the years. Foremost among these (at least to this assessment) were that Hughes was not even fully a "Negro" and he may even have been a homosexual–his obsessive secrecy about his sexual liaisons baffled even as exhaustive a researcher as Rampersad–at a time when that meant something arguably even worse than being "Negro."

Langston Hughes, in other words, was so mixed up and jumbled up and disaffiliated that he can safely be said to belong to all of us. And thank God for that, because Hughes was one of the finest literary figures, and human beings, this nation has ever produced.

Hughes was born and raised in the Midwest. His mother was black and his father, James Hughes, was part black, white and Native American. Neither of his parents were worth a damn to their son. They effectively disowned him, sending young Langston to be raised by his kindly but somewhat distant grandmother until the age of 13. Langston, according to Rampersad, hated his father (even dropping "James" as his name), a miserable wretch of a man. He deeply loved his mother, who did not return the affection. She was, in fact, as mentally abusive as any person you'll find in the annals of psychobabble bestsellerdom.

Cut to the chase: Langston Hughes was dealt all the cards that would have, in most other people's hands, produced a tragic life. And yet, he was not a tragic person and he did not wallow in self-pity or tragedy. He did not even abuse drugs or alcohol, did not beat any women or pets. About the worst thing he ever did was hold some fairly liberal political opinions, a crime for which it still seems possible to be hauled in front of a tribunal (in his day, Hughes was called in front of the committee headed by the alcoholic Sen. Joseph McCarthy, to answer for his sins).

Hughes, in case you haven't figured it out by now, was an exceptional person, a cultured, generous and altogether decent person. Because he did have black blood and a dark skin, he was, for all intents and purposes, a "Negro." Indeed, the country was so blisteringly racist during his childhood that if one possessed even a dark complexion one was subject to possible nightly visitations from the in bred God-loving white idiots in the Ku Klux Klan.

And yet, to give you an idea of how mixed up all this was inside the young, gentle Langston, here's a passage from Rampersad's wonderful biography. It describes a train trip that Hughes took to Mexico in 1920, soon after graduating from high school:

"Cheerlessly he thought of his angry mother and his forbidding father. In particular, he brooded on his father's hatred of blacks; nothing else in James Hughes so alienated his son. In a year when W.E.B. Du Bois was predicting the coming of a race war, when Marcus Garvey was preparing a grand meeting in New York with the cry 'Back to Africa', when the Ku Klux Klan was in resurgence and blacks were being lynched with impunity, his own father sneered at 'niggers.' Blacks seemed to Langston, even at the distance from which he viewed them, the most wonderful people in the world. This was the main legacy of his grandmother through her heroic tales, and of the Reeds, and of the black men and women in church who had loved him as a child."

It was on this train trip that Hughes scribbled notes for one of his most famous poems. Rampersad sets the scene powerfully: "The sun was setting as the train reached St. Louis and began the long passage from Illinois across the Mississippi [River] into Missouri, where Hughes had been born. The beauty of the hour and the setting–the great muddy river glinting in the sun, the banked and tinted summer clouds, the rush of the train toward the dark, all touched an adolescent sensibility tender after the gloomy day. The phrase came to him, then a sentence. Drawing an envelope from his pocket, he began to scribble. In a few minutes Langston had finished a poem:

'I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older
than the flow of blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.'

If you don't know this poem, please find it and read it. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is one of the greatest pieces of purely American poetry ever written.

One of the nicest ways to introduce yourself to Langston Hughes, the poet and the person, is via the new Random House Audio "Voice of the Poet" series. In the CD devoted to Langston Hughes, edited and with a commentary by J. D. McClatchy, you get a chance to listen to the man himself in conversation. Even as he goes through his poems in a recording studio, he can't resist telling stories about how each came into being; in fact, since most of his poems are deceptively short (and, thus, probably easy for the academes to have dismissed over the years), the majority of the recording is of Hughes simply talking about himself and his poetry. Through listening to this disc, which contains 55 separate cuts, one gets to know Hughes quite well.

One can't help but notice, straight up front, the voice. It's soft, slightly effeminate, friendly, humble and amused. Between poems, he talks about his childhood with total honesty but little rancor and reads his now iconic poems as casually as if he's hanging out in your backyard hammock. My personal favorite performance is of "Motto," written in 1951, which ends: "My motto/ As I live and learn, is: / Dig and Be Dug/ In Return." Amen.

Hughes' first collection The Weary Blues (1926) announced the arrival, at age 24, of a major American poet. Opening with "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (which he'd, amazingly, written at age 18), the book captured the flowering taking place in African-American culture. Hughes became a central player in the Harlem Renaissance, the beautiful burst of art, music, dance and literature that exploded above the skies of New York in the 1920s.

Even before The Weary Blues was published, the title poem had won a prize from Opportunity, an influential magazine in the black community. Just three years earlier, the young poet had dropped out of Columbia University, hopped a freighter to Africa and then subsisted on odd jobs in Paris, Genoa and Washington, D.C. One night in 1925, while working as a busboy at DC's Wardman Park Hotel, Hughes left three hastily scribbled poems on the table of Vachel Lindsay, then America's preeminent "performer" of poetry. At his reading that evening, Lindsay, writes Steven Watson in The Harlem Renaissance (Pantheon, 1995), "announced in stentorian tones the presence of a poet in their midst...and he then read all three of Hughes's poems." While his talent would inevitably lead Hughes to the forefront of American letters–and friendships with great writers Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston–Lindsay's boost recharged his flagging spirits. He returned to New York soon thereafter to claim his rightful stature.

The early poem "The Weary Blues" offers an insight into Langston Hughes' inimitable poetic style. He blended equal parts melancholy and ecstacy to produce a new literary "sound," as in the lines, "And far into the night he crooned that tune./ The stars went out and so did the moon./ The singer stopped playing and went to bed/ While the Weary Blues echoed through his head./ He slept like a rock or a man that's dead."

This marked the start of Hughes' lifelong pursuit of an authentic "Negro" voice, one infused with the syncopation and stylings of black music: jazz, gospel and blues. Of the blues, he said, "The mood of the blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh."

Hughes was a fascinating and complex individual. A product of African, French and Indian blood and an itinerant family, Hughes was forced to adapt quickly to social situations. The strikingly handsome and unaffectedly sophisticated Hughes moved among all strata with equal ease. He also plumbed this same wide spectrum for his prolific output as a poet, novelist (Not Without Laughter), children's writer (Popo and Fifina), storyteller (The Ways of the White Folk), humorist, literary historian and anthologist. He also wrote a memoir of his remarkable life, The Big Sea (1940).

The manner of Hughes' death says more about the man than any ten biographies could. As Watson writes, "From his childhood on, Hughes had successfully masked pain and emotion, and it was in this manner that he died on May 22, 1967. Not wanting to trouble friends about acute abdominal pains, he taxied himself to Polyclinic Hospital, admitted himself as James L. Hughes, and kept his hospitalization a secret during the two weeks between his admittance and his death."

When a vigilant friend did learn of his whereabouts and went to visit him, the genial Hughes said, "I'm laughing to keep from dying."

His funeral was, fittingly, a celebration of the highest magnitude. It ended with a performance of Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Until You Hear from Me" and a group recitation of "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."