Langston Hughes: the Poet

“I am so tired of waiting,
Aren’t you,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?” 
– Langston Hughes
 
This week we have moved from one incredible writer to another: Langston Hughes. A leading force in the Harlem Renaissance, a poet, a scholar, an activist, and a black man, Hughes spoke unashamedly and proudly of his experiences with racism in a still heavily segregated America. While it is hard to find a way to do this influential and impressive man justice, we will do our best.

Langston Hughes was born to a mixed race couple who divorced shortly after his birth in Missouri in 1902. After both of his parents had gone their separate ways, Hughes was left with his grandparents, who proceeded to raise him as their son. He went to a desegregated school and was the only black student in his class. It could easily be said that the separation he felt when faced with this segregation catalyzed the creation of his poetry. Hughes was known as the class poet and wrote prolifically. From his first poems, we see how he used his experiences with racism as inspiration. This negative experience, however, was not his only influence.

Hughes was also impacted by African culture. During his lifetime, he traveled to back and forth from America to different parts of Africa for his job working on a boat. His experience with the culture there, combined with the culture he experienced in America, led to the powerful nature of his works. In a time when art and culture were in flux, Langston turned from the classical Shakespearean format to the flow of folk stories and blues songs. He worked hard throughout his life to not only write about meaningful topics but to make it accessible to as many people as possible. He made sure to use an easily understood vocabulary, and often recited his poems, giving people who couldn’t read access to his work as well.

While his work was affected by his race, Hughes was careful to keep mentions of his sexuality to a minimum. In his most obvious queer works, he does not align himself with queerness, but rather shows his support for the queer community. In ‘Cafe, 3 AM’, for example, Hughes says:

“Degenerates,/some folks say./But God, Nature,/or somebody/made them that way” (Cafe; 3 AM, Langston Hughes).

Despite his relative silence on the subject, speculation on his sexuality has always existed. Some theorists claimed that Hughes wasn’t gay, but was rather uninterested in sex with anyone, regardless of their gender. Others claim that he was a gay man, and any suggestion to the contrary is an attempt to hide an important part of his identity.

But in an uncommon turn of events, it is possible both theories are correct.

It seems that Langston Hughes was most likely asexual and gay. While the first biographer who suggested his asexuality was probably doing so out of a bigoted need to make Hughes heterosexual (though we know that asexuality and heterosexuality are two different sexualities entirely), evidence suggests he may have been right. By most accounts, Hughes never experienced sexual attraction to other men, though he did have many opportunities to act on such attraction. Two other queer poets, Alain Locke and Countee Cullen, sent letters to each other about Langston’s potential seducibility, but in the end, it seems that they failed to reach that objective. There is, however more than enough evidence that Langston experienced deep romantic attraction to other men. He wrote many unpublished love poems with their subjects being men, and he often found himself in the company of gay men, having many friends who were out, and being a part of the queer community at the time. He reportedly even went to drag clubs with friends.

Despite the community of relative support he was surrounded with, Langston Hughes never came out himself. This may have been out of concerns for his safety, but other possible reasons can be found in his writing. In the short story, Hughes wrote about a boy’s father struggling with his son’s queerness. The son’s life has many parallels with Langston’s: both lead the same clubs, excel academically, and have difficult relationships with their fathers.

Langston Hughes died in 1967 and had his ashes encased in a memorial in the foyer of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. He is revered as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance, but his sexuality remains relatively unexplored. The sources that do question his sexual and romantic encounters keep their exploration to a surface level look at his life, either saying he was asexual or gay, even though those two identities are not mutually exclusive.

While Hughes lived at the time when the distinction between romantic and sexual attraction was not well known, the queer community of today can change how we view his orientation. Even if we haven’t always had words for experiences, that doesn’t mean those experiences aren’t valid, or that they didn’t exist solely because they didn’t have a name. While Hughes didn’t have the words to explain all his experiences, he had always lived through the philosophy of using words to connect to each other. Now, as pride months begins, it is time for us to acknowledge the queer people who weren’t public about their identity. It’s our responsibility to give them a voice and to offer them the words that they were never given the opportunity to learn.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

University of Illinois. Langston Hughes. Retrieved June 7 2016 from
http://www.uis.edu/lgbtqa/langstonhughes/

Als, H. (2015, March 2.) The Sojourner. Retrieved June 7 2016 from
http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner

Belonsky, A. Today in Gay History: The Great ‘Was Langston Gay?’ Debate. Retrieved June 7

2016 from http://www.out.com/entertainment/today-gay-history/2014/02/01/today-gay-history-great-%E2%80%98was-langston-gay%E2%80%99-debate

Vogel, S. Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife. Retrieved June 7 2016
from https://muse.jhu.edu/article/230831

Jones, S. (2009, August 5.) Langston Hughes & Closeted Poetry. Retrieved June 7 2016 from
https://saeedjones.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/reading-in-the-closet/