“I am so tired of waiting,
For the world to become good
And beautiful and kind?”
– Langston Hughes
We now shift from one prolific 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 of his experiences with racism in a still heavily segregated America.
Langston Hughes was born in Missouri in 1902, and his parents split shortly after his birth. After both of his parents had gone their separate ways, Hughes was left with his grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, who proceeded to raise him as her 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.
Hughes was also impacted by African culture. During his lifetime, he travelled 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”
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, both theories may be correct.
It is entirely possible that Langston Hughes was 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 asexuality and heterosexuality are two different sexualities entirely— some evidence suggests he may have been right. Some accounts suggest that Hughes never experienced sexual attraction to other men, partly because he did have many opportunities to act on such attraction but rarely did. 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 either say 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 yet.
While Hughes didn’t have the words to explain all his experiences, he had always lived through the philosophy of using words to connect people. 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 allowed to learn.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Als, H. (2015, March 2). The Elusive Langston Hughes. The Sojourner. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner
Belonsky, A. (2014, February 1). Today in Gay History: The Great ‘Was Langston Gay?’ Debate. Out Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.out.com/entertainment/today-gay-history/2014/02/01/today-gay-history-great-%E2%80%98was-langston-gay%E2%80%99-debate
Jones, S. (2009, August 5). Langston Hughes & Closeted Poetry. Retrieved https://saeedjones.wordpress.com/2009/08/05/reading-in-the-closet/
Langston Hughes. (2012). University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://www.uis.edu/lgbtqa/langstonhughes/
Vogel, S. (2006). Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Poetics of Harlem Nightlife. Criticism 48(3), 397-425. Wayne State University Press. Retrieved August 26, 2019, from Project MUSE database.