By the time of his death in 1967, Langston Hughes should have had every reason to feel secure about his place in the history of American culture. No one could have been a more prolific or versatile writer. For more than forty years, he had written successfully in every conceivable mode. Most of this writing took the form of poetry, drama, autobiography, or fiction, but Hughes was also accomplished in such unusual areas as song lyrics, librettos, and comic journalism. When he was not writing creatively, he was expressing his feelings and concerns as an editor, translator, and world-traveling activist. Nevertheless, he apparently died a disappointed man. As a sensitive black man trying to make his way in a hostile society, he continually dreamed of justice, and most of his work was inspired by an obsessive need to confront the inevitable consequences of entrenched racism. Because he finally doubted that his efforts had accomplished much, however, he seems to have concluded that the sum of his work was perhaps only a “wasted song.”
Today, this melancholy self-assessment may hardly sound credible because Hughes’s reputation has been on the ascendancy for a number of years, thanks in large part to a critical change in attitudes toward Afro-American literature as a whole. The definitive history of the rise of Afro-American literature has yet to be written. When it is, it very possibly will show that Hughes was the single most important figure in the movement, since he embodied more fully than anyone else its energy, variety, and idealistic goals. Faith Berry invites this conclusion in Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, the first full-scale attempt to trace Hughes’s life.
Although Berry’s biography has its flaws and weaknesses, it is still an important book—the first to add up Hughes’s enormous achievements and put his impact in perspective. In doing so, Berry worked against great odds. When she first planned the project, she had luck on her side. After meeting Hughes not long before his death, she was promised by his literary executor, Arna Bontemps, that she would be provided with all the help she needed in her research. This promise, however, never materialized, and after Bontemps’ death in 1973, Berry was refused access to important collections of Hughes’s papers. A less determined person might have given up at this point. Instead, she decided to search out all the other sources. For more than a dozen years (inspired, she says, by the tenacious example of Hughes himself), she persisted. She appears to have researched every available written item by or about Hughes; she also appears to have interviewed practically all of Hughes’s surviving friends and associates. The result is a book that has the heft and density of first-rate historical scholarship.
As one follows Hughes’s story, one begins to get a full picture of the times from a black person’s point of view. There were years of constant struggle, interspersed with brief periods of exhilaration and real hope. Like most of his counterparts, Hughes was hounded by money problems for much of his life. In the United States, the lot of the black writer was to have a limited reading public and few outlets for publication—especially if, like Hughes, one was not only black but also politically militant. For many years, Hughes had to place much of his work with such appreciative but financially unrewarding journals and newspapers as New Masses and The Daily Worker. Even after Hughes became internationally famous, he still thought it was a great accomplishment when he managed to get enough money together to buy a brown suit.
If money worries nagged him constantly, the problems of racial and political harassment were even more oppressive. Because of his militant activism against racial prejudice, he often faced the hostility of white supremacists. This situation frightened him, but never enough to make him stop writing and speaking on the subject of injustice. It was when he sensed the direct pressure of official disapproval that Hughes felt most vulnerable and fought most desperately to keep his moral courage. Because of his leftist politics, Hughes felt such pressures especially keenly during the years when Communism was perceived as a living, pernicious threat in various...
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