How would you describe the overtall tone of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright? Is one more successful than the other?Which form of literature do you find more effective?
I know my job here is to answer questions, but are we so sure that Wright and Hughes are really that different? There are obviously points of contrast, but this opposition seems the result of decades of critical work that has constantly downplayed the importance of folk culture in Wright's oeuvre. Since the end of the 1980s, Wright, once at the center of African American literary canon, has been constantly shifted to its margins to privilege writers such as Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. These authors are felt to be more positive than Wright about their own cultural heritage. In addition, because of Wright's strong links to Communism, critics construct the writer according to the Cold War rhetoric that sees black writers manipulated by Communism through its fake message of liberation.
Yet, while Wright talks about the "essential bleakness of black life in America" in his autobiographical Black Boy, he is also the author of the essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937). In the essay, Wright suggests that the "Negro Church" and "the folklore of the Negro people" are the source of African American culture. One would be tempted to say that because Black Boy is a later work than "Blueprint", Wright has clearly developed a more pessimistic attitude towards black folk culture. Just as it works in one sense, however, chronology can point us to a different direction. In his study between African Americans and Communism, New Negro, Old Left (1999), William Maxwell reminds us that we should hear "the voice of the cultivated 1940s Wright in the adolescent autobiographical subject" (pages 176-177). According to Maxwell, when we read the whole passage in the first autobiographical volume in contrast to a later passage in the second autobiographical volume, American Hunger, it is clear that Wright considers his youthful judgment as immature. In this second passage Wright claims that understanding "the peasant mentality" of a black farmer had made him aware of how cut off he had been from his own people. Wright persona moves from anxiety to relative confidence in African American folk culture whose revolutionary potential Wright unveils through Communism.
In our constant need to set up oppositions, we often forget that Hughes too was involved with Communism. Although Hughes was forced to deny his party membership before McCarthy's hearings on UnAmerican activities, it is proved that he had constant links to the party in the first half of the 20th century and was the President of the Communist League of Struggle for Negro Rights. He had also travelled to the USSR. Hughes's A New Song (1938), a book of poems, was dedicated to the International Workers Order and was prefaced by American Communist cultural commissar Mike Gold.
Both Wright and Hughes echo the voices of ordinary African Americans and the rhythms of their music. Hughes with jazz; Wright with the Blues. The blues are the blend of near-tragic, near-comic pathos that draws on gospel, slave narratives, and African culture. Wright says:
Blues, spirituals, and fold tales recounted from mouth to mouth...all these formed the channels through which the racial wisdom flowed.
Both draw on the oral traditions of the working-class in terms of folk lingo and dialect (Hughes more so).
Wright, a communist, was much more political. In his essay "Blueprint for Negro Writing," Richard Wright says,
Negro writers must accept the nationalist implications of their lives, not in order to encourage them, but in order to change and transcend them.
Hughes spoke more for America as a whole, like Whitman. His poetic personas look at the hopeful possibilities of the Black experience and identity.
As to whose tone is more effective, I would have to say that Hughes' voice is more humanistic and universal. I believe he will continue to be read and anthologized more for what he had to say.