The Negro Speaks of Rivers
For а number of reasons, Langston Hughes's radical poetry, the bulk of which he wrote between 1932-1938, has received little scholarly attention and has yet to make its way into many anthologies of American literature (with the notable exception of а few poems in the vanguard second and third editions of The Heath Anthology of American Literature). The origins of this benign and not-so-benign neglect lie in Hughes's own retrospective ambivalence toward his earlier radical activities and poetry.
As early as 1940 he substantially repressed the memory of his involvement with the proletarian literary movement in his autobiography, The Big Sea. And we can surmise that the hostile recovery of this memory by none other than House on Un-American Activities (1995) in the 1950s did little to encourage Hughes to include his explicitly "red" poetry in his Selected Poems (1959).
But Hughes's repression of his radical poetry in the 1940s and 1950s was only one symptom of а debilitating neurosis in American society: that all-too familiar Cold War fear of the radical "other" and its shadow that even deeper fear of one's own "un-American" impulses. Of course, writers rarely exercise power over the public reception of their work, and Hughes was no exception.
The repression that is, exclusion of proletarian literature from academic canons was in large part а New Critical achievement; 1930s radical poetry was disqualified as poetry, since it was not nor ever aimed to be self-referential.
With а few exceptions, scholarship on Hughes's poetry tends to dismiss the works of this period because they don't measure up to aesthetic standards, or, as Arnold Rampersad has written, because they fail to express the "essential identity" of the dark American. After all, they embrace an internationalist perspective that is critical of the Dark Nationalist or Pan-African ideology attributed to his earlier Harlem Renaissance poems. (Rampersad, 12-26)
The relevance of post-war nationalism to Hughes's poetry is found in its effect on him and many dark intellectuals in and around Harlem during the 1920s. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the Harlem Renaissance in the absence of the predominance of the ideology of nationalism in World War I, the Paris Peace Conference, the Pan-African Congresses, UNIA, Du Bois, the NAACP, and the Crisis. Many Harlem Renaissance literati did in fact embrace Dark Nationalism and Pan Africanism out of а desire to resist the avalanche of white racism in America and to create а distinctly dark society that fairly represented and honored dark life.
And like Rampersad, many of these writers aimed to construct this national society out of essentialist notions of dark identity. They believed that the "substructure" of race produced а "superstructure" of dark literature. Charles S. Johnson wrote at the time:
“The new ethical poetry of the Negro is the expression of something more than experimentation in а new technique. It marks the birth of а new ethical consciousness and self-conception. It is first of all а frank acceptance of race, but the recognition of this difference without the usual implications of disparity”. (Rampersad, 12-26) A cursory reading of many of Hughes's poems from the 1920s (such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, “Our Land”, “Danse Africaine,” “I, too,” and his “Proem” from The Weary Blues) would confirm that he too had а strong sense of “race pride”, borne out of “а new ethical consciousness and self-conception", which is why Johnson hailed Hughes's poetry as “without doubt the finest expression of this new Negro Poetry”. In his “The Negro Artist and the Ethical Mountain” Hughes clearly formulates his position on the dark aesthetic. He argues that the impasse to developing а dark aesthetic is the hegemony of American white society (figured as the "ethical mountain") over representations of "race." (Langston Hughes: www.poetryfoundation.org) And he particularly finds middle class dark artists, who have been taught through their education and social milieu to emulate white society, denying their ethical identity and heritage. Working class darks, on the other hand, are the repositories of an authentic dark society, since they "still hold their own individuality" and can furnish dark artists with the proper subject (dark life) and expressive forms (jazz, blues, spirituals, folk music).
Hughes concludes that the chief responsibility of the dark writer is to produce а ethical literature drawn from African American life and society. "We younger Negro artists who create," Hughes defiantly writes, "now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame”. Rampersad, who identifies Hughes as а dark nationalist, notes that "Hughes's insistence on а distinct dark art ... [is] ... а recognition of the fact that Afro-Americans are а distinct people within the American nation". (Rampersad, 12-26)
It is important to note that, as with most forms of nationalism, Hughes's also functions through а hierarchy of "race." "Nordic" society is amorphously represented as homogenous, "dull", and implicitly incapable of providing the dark artist with anything useful а notion he dispenses with in the 1930s.
Nonetheless, the purpose of Hughes's spirited critique of and challenge to white-identified dark artists was to shake up the status quo of Anglo centric social hegemony. I underscore the ethicalist thrust of his essay to place it squarely within the social nationalism of the post-war period. For Hughes, and many other writers in and around the Harlem Renaissance, "race" must be the foundation of а national art. It is no wonder that Rampersad proclaimed Hughes the "spokesman" of the "Negro masses". (Rampersad, 12-26)
"Theme for English B," explores ethical conflict between the poet and his white professor. If anything were going to convince а "white" America of the humanity and equality of darks, it would have to be "society," that realm where human beings differentiate themselves from the "savage" and aspire to the divine. Thus, what would ordinarily be constituted as political was subordinated to or subsumed by what counted as social, that is, what could take the form deemed most acceptable to the dominant society.
This idea resulted in а social movement created by an intelligentsia who hoped to compete with white artists for social authority. Given the intense repression of progressive political praxis in post-war America, the social nationalist aesthetic can be theorized as а response to the crisis of political agency and the desire to transform social reality.
Hughes's move to the left was in large part recognition of the limitations of а social nationalist perspective of social relations. We can assume that witnessing the millions of white workers unemployed and underemployed made it difficult to continue to believe that the "white man" was master of his own fate, let alone that of African Americans. Nonetheless, Hughes's radical poetry shatters from "below" the myth of exclusively white domination by depicting the existence of а poor white working class exploited in common with darks, and from "above" by representing the existence of а rich class of color exploiting in common with wealthy whites.(1930-1946)
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: I, Too, Sing America. Vol. 1, 1902-1941, 1986.
Langston Hughes. Retrieved from http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poet.html?id=3340 on 25th February 2008.