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Langston Hughes and RNC: the 1930s

It’s a relief when people get in trouble for what they actually said. It makes things easier, more straightforward. What does that have to do with the RNC going on? Well, you decide, that’s up to you. But Langston Hughes, well. Most of the stuff that people try to call him out for, oh yes, he said that stuff. He did that stuff.

The context of him saying it, now. That’s a little trickier.

Take Goodbye Christ, possibly Hughes’ most controversial poem. It was hard to find a link that didn’t go into explanation, exegesis, excuses for that one. It’s not a poem that goes well with the Gospel sentiments of some of Hughes’ poetry of the 1920s–or perhaps it could be. It might not be so hard, after all, to see how the same poet who was inspired by the message of Jesus and his ministry could be pretty turned off by the modern followers who claim to speak in His name. But he did not pull any punches in saying so; he did not hedge it around or pull his punches, and if you want to view it as an angry rejection of actual Jesus, that’s there to be had, go ahead.

The 1930s saw, in addition to the poem that kicked off this blog series, overtly political poem after overtly political poem from Hughes. He was paying attention to labor conditions–it was the 1930s, who could ignore them?–the Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (mostly ignored or unknown by modern white readers). By the time he got to Song for Ourselves, with “Czechoslovakia lynched on a swastika cross,” the litany of “oh crap what now” looks simultaneously historically familiar and…contemporary. Highly contemporary. Relevant.

This is where the people who are sure that Hughes was a Communist start to have their fodder. There are poems to Lenin, and Good Morning Revolution and its ilk are not exactly subtle. They aren’t trying to be. As another American three decades later would tell us, you gotta sing loud if you want to end war and stuff.

Not everyone likes this approach. Not everyone liked it then. Nor did Hughes like everyone else’s approach, as the poem To Certain Negro Leaders makes pithily clear. There’s a lot of variety in this decade of Hughes poems–short, long, rhyming, non-rhyming, ranging the world over–but by the beginning of the 1930s Hughes had won himself a place, a soapbox, a voice, and it looks like he wasn’t about to give it up for anything.

I’m not sure we’d have heard of him if he had.

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