Langston Hughes

Summary

Langston Hughes (Joplin, Missouri, 1902 – New York, New York, 1967) was an African-American poet, novelist and columnist. He is best known for his association with the Harlem Renaissance, of which he was one of the driving forces.

First years

Langston Hughes” full name is James Mercer Langston Hughes. He was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, son of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Langston Hughes. His father abandoned his wife and left for Cuba and then Mexico due to the prevailing racism in the United States. After the separation, Hughes lived with his mother and grandmother, who died shortly before they moved to Cleveland, after having passed through a dozen cities. The legends told by his grandmother had a great impact on Hughes. Through them he discovered the African-American oral tradition that made him proud of his race.

He spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. Thereafter, he would live alone with his mother, who had remarried, in Lincoln, Illinois, and in Cleveland, Ohio, until entering Columbia University and beginning the Harlem era.

Education

While in elementary school, in Illinois, he was named class poet, because (as he later recounts) there was a stereotype in America that all African Americans were born with a great sense of rhythm.

I was a victim of stereotype; there were only two black kids in the class, and the English teacher was always remarking on the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows (except us) that all blacks have a great sense of rhythm, so I was made class poet.

While still in high school in Ohio, he edited the yearbook and began writing his first stories, poetry and plays. An example of this is his first poetry incorporating jazz, When Sue Wears Red or The Negro Speaks of Rivers, one of his best known poems. It was at this time that he discovered his love of letters and discovered the authors who would most influence his writing: Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. In 1919 Hughes lived for a time with his father in Mexico, but their relationship was so traumatic that Hughes contemplated suicide at least once. However, after high school he returned to Mexico to try to get his father to finance his studies at Columbia University. Hughes recounts in The Big Sea how, while traveling in Mexico, he used to think about his father and the strange aversion he had for his own people.

I couldn”t understand it, because I”m African-American, and I like African-Americans very much.

Initially, his father expected Langston to go to college to study engineering, but not in the United States. On these terms, he was willing to finance his son”s studies, as he did not approve of his desire to be a writer. Eventually, Hughes and his father came to an agreement: Langston would study engineering, but at Columbia.

In college, Hughes maintained a fairly good grade point average, but dropped out in 1922 because of racial prejudice within the institution, and because his interests turned more towards his Harlem neighborhood and what was cooking there. After this, now unfunded, Hughes traveled for a couple of years in Africa and America as a sailor, after which he settled back in Harlem.

Working life

He went through several jobs before serving briefly as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone in 1923, with which he spent six months sailing to West Africa and Europe, where he left the ship for Paris. There he met the writers of the so-called Lost Generation, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In November 1924, Hughes returned to the U.S. to live with his mother in Washington, D.C., going to work as a personal assistant to historian Carter G. Woodson of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, a job he left to work in a hotel. There he met poet Vachel Lindsay, who published his discovery of a new black poet, launching him to fame.

In 1926 Hughes entered Lincoln University, graduating in art in 1929 and receiving his doctorate in 1943. In 1963 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Howard University.

Except for a few tours of the Caribbean, he never again left Harlem, where he died on May 22, 1967, of prostate cancer at the age of 65. His ashes are under a medallion in the auditorium that bears his name at the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Although Langston Hughes achieved fame as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, one should not restrict the breadth of his work to this period or this genre, although there is no doubt about the importance he played in shaping it. In addition to being a poet, he was a novelist, columnist, playwright and essayist, and although his subject matter is heavily influenced by Harlem, the experience of his travels is also one of the sources of his style.

One of the most relevant characteristics of the Harlem Renaissance (in its later influence) is the imitation of jazz sounds and improvisations in Jazz poetry, such as syncopated rhythms. The pioneers in adapting jazz rhythms and refrains to poetry were Carl Dunbar and Langston Hughes, both heavily involved in the extension of racial pride and the preservation of the African American tradition. They began to study how to add rhythms from jazz, blues and other types of African American music, such as spirituals, to poetry. They sought to give their poetry a distinctive form, composing poems such as Weary Man Blues, which adapt rhythm, terminology and musical subject matter.

Jazz poetry re-emerges two decades later with the beat generation, and contemporaneously in rap music, which also makes use of these syncopated rhythms.

Mexico and Cuba

From an early age Hughes was attracted to Hispanic culture in general and Spanish culture in particular. When he was only six years old, he accompanied his mother to visit his father in Toluca (Mexico) in an unsuccessful attempt by the couple to recompose their marriage. Eleven years later, in 1919, he returned to Mexico called by his father and the following year he repeated the trip, although father and son never reconciled. But in Mexico he learned to speak Spanish, read and admired Spanish authors such as Cervantes, Blasco Ibáñez, Pío Baroja and García Lorca. The last time he visited Mexico was in 1934, on the occasion of his father”s death. During this stay he met and dealt with the folklorist Andrés Henestrosa, the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and writers such as Salvador Novo, Carlos Pellicer, Xavier Villaurrutia or José Gorostiza. He maintained a special relationship with the great Mexican muralists Orozco, Siqueiros and Diego Rivera. Years later Hughes would remember that Mexican stay as one of the best periods of his life.

He also visited Cuba, at least four times. The most significant was in 1930, when some of his poems had already been translated into Spanish by Fernández de Castro. Then he met and dealt assiduously with, among others, the poet Nicolás Guillén. The result of this stay is the translation into English of poems by Guillén himself and other Cuban writers. On the occasion of what would be his last visit to the island, in 1931, he wrote his well-known anti-imperialist poem “To the Little Fort of San Lazaro on the Ocean Front, Havana”.

Spain

But the most decisive stay in his life was the one he made in Spain in 1937 as a correspondent of the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper to inform the American society about the reality of the Spanish Civil War and especially about the American blacks enrolled in the International Brigades. Before coming to Spain, Hughes had already spoken out in defense of the threatened Republic and had written an anti-war poem, “Song of Spain”. Due to the official neutrality of the United States government before the war in Spain, Hughes traveled to Spain through France and in Paris he had the opportunity to attend the II International Congress of Writers, which brought together anti-fascist intellectuals from all over Europe. In the company of Nicolás Guillén, Hughes arrived in Spain in August 1937 and, after a short stay in Barcelona and Valencia, they arrived in Madrid, where they were installed in the headquarters of the Alianza de Intelectuales Antifascistas para la Defensa de la Cultura, directed by José Bergamín and of which Rafael Alberti was secretary. This is how Hughes comments on their installation in Madrid:

From this Madrid house, once a palace for the leisure of the wealthy, now come and go the best writers, artists and thinkers of Spain, as well as foreign visitors who reside in Madrid or who are in the country gathering material for articles and books (…). ) Sometimes these writers, both Spanish and foreign, leave the house to continue their work as fighters, thinkers or artists at the front, and no longer return (…) As you can see, the artists and writers who frequented the Alliance in Madrid were not of the Ivory Tower school. In fact, it would have been impossible for them to be in an Ivory Tower in Madrid. The cannons would have blown it to pieces.

At the end of December of that same year, and after having visited the fronts, Hughes left Madrid and, again via Valencia and Barcelona, reached French soil:

Seeing myself that day in Tour de Carol (the first village in France), for the first time in six months away from the roar of shells and bombs, I sat down in the station canteen and ordered a succulent meal (to the other, nothing. On one side, peace. On the other, war. On one side, tranquility under the sun. On the other, the bang! of shells, the wailing of sirens and the bursting of bombs over populous cities (…) I remained alone on the platform of the small station that bright December day and looked across the valley towards Spain thinking about borders, nationalities and war. I wondered what would become of the Spanish people marching along the bloody tightrope of their civil war.

Hughes” writings on the Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War occupies a significant section in the literary work of Langston Hughes. The fragments of his memoirs I Wonder as I Wander offer us a very suggestive panorama of the author”s wanderings through Spain in 1937 and his relationships not only with Spanish writers (Alberti, Miguel Hernández) or Spanish-American writers (Nicolás Guillén) but also with North Americans such as Ernest Hemingway.

As for the chronicles he sent to various American newspapers, Hughes wrote them with militant zeal, so that his American readers would show solidarity with the Republic in danger. His message is simple and even repetitive: in the war in Spain the struggle for freedom is being debated and, if fascism triumphs in Spain, it will then spread to the rest of Europe. In this struggle for freedom, the numerous anonymous heroes from all over the world who were part of the International Brigades stand out. One group of these volunteers to whom Hughes devotes special attention is made up of black Americans, whose vicissitudes in the Republican trenches (from Brunete to the Battle of the Ebro) he describes and comments on as an example and a source of pride for his readers. From his perspective as a writer of color, he never ceases to be surprised by the presence of Moroccan soldiers in Franco”s army, and about this incoherence he even argues with a Moroccan rebel soldier he meets in a hospital. A very suggestive aspect of the book is the parallelism he finds between flamenco and American black music (jazz and blues). Hughes traveled to Spain with a stupendous collection of jazz records, which were played in the salons of the Alianza de Escritores Antifascistas, and whenever he could, he went to hear La Niña de los Peines and other flamenco artists performing in the Madrid besieged by Franco”s bombing raids.

Finally, Hughes wrote about a dozen poems about Spain and the Civil War, some written in Spain and others upon his return to the United States in the 1940s and 1950s. Almost all of them are of great emotion and expressive force. As letters, postcards and songs from Spain, they deserve to be among the best that have been written about that unfortunate uncivil war.

Langston Hughes and Federico García Lorca

There are no certain data to ensure that Lorca and Hughes got to know each other, although we know that during his stay in New York the poet from Granada frequented people who were very close to Hughes, among them the black novelist Nella Larsen, who served on more than one occasion as cicerone to the poet in his walks through the city. Lorca himself told in his lecture “A Poet in New York” (1932) how he once visited a very famous place in Harlem, frequented by both whites and blacks, Small”s Paradise, a club where Hughes was also a regular, and they must also have coincided in a stay in Cuba, in March 1930. And if the two rubbed elbows with the island”s intelligentsia, it would be logical to think that they might have met at some literary or social event. But as suggestive as the image of the two poets talking to each other at that time may be, neither of them left a written record of having met. What there is evidence of is the admiration Hughes felt for Lorca”s literary work, as evidenced by his translations into English of several texts by the poet from Granada. While in Spain, with the help of Rafael Alberti and Manuel Altolaguirre, Hughes undertook the translation into English of the Romancero gitano, although only the “Romance de la guardia civil” was published in the U.S. in 1938. Later, in 1951, fifteen of the book”s eighteen poems were published in “The Beloit Poetry Champbook” under the title Gipsy Ballads. For this translation Hughes was advised by the brother of the murdered poet, Francisco García Lorca, then a professor at Columbia University. Hughes went so far as to say of these poems that they were “so beautiful that I wish I had written them myself instead of just translating them.” Hughes also translated the play Blood Wedding into English, although this translation was never published.

Hughes translations into Spanish

The first loose poems in Spanish by Hughes appeared in Latin America in the thirties, translated by Fernández de Castro, Jorge Luis Borges and Nicolás Guillén. Later, in the fifties, part of his literary work was translated in Argentina, almost always by Julio Galer. A selection of his poems appeared in 1952 in Lautaro publishing house. The first part of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940) was translated as El inmenso mar (1946). The other autobiographical book, I Wonder as I Wander (1956) was translated in 1959 (Fabril publishing house) as Yo viajo por un mundo encantado. Already in Spain, it was translated in 2013 with the title Divago mientras vago and the subtitle Un viaje autobiográfico (editorial La Balsa de Medusa, translation by Mariano Peyrou)). The novel Not Without Laughter (1930) appeared under the title Pero con risas (Future, 1945), and the book of short stories Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) was titled in Spanish Riendo por no llorar (Siglo XXI, 1955). In 1954, Quetzal published the play Mulato.

As for Spain, the first reference to Hughes” poetry in Spain appears in No. 3 (August-September 1933) of the magazine Octubre, published by Rafael Alberti and María Teresa León. In that issue seven “Canciones de los negros de Norteamérica” are published, which is a selection of anonymous poems of a vindictive nature, and two poems by Hughes, “Yo también canto a América” and “Carta a los camaradas del Sur”. Rafael Alberti in his memoirs says that he himself translated the first of the poems. The translation of the second is due to E. Delgado, author also of a note to the poems in which, among other things, it is said: “He has been a hotel bellboy, dishwasher, factory worker and sailor. His books of poems and his novel Not Without Laughter reflect the social drama of his race, its aspirations, its sufferings and its struggles against capitalist exploitation”.

But apart from this brief selection and some other translations of single poems in different literary magazines, it was not until 2004 that a significant anthology of Hughes” poetry appeared: Blues, (Valencia, Pre-Textos publishing house), in its English version and its Spanish translation. In 2009 La Oficina

Bibliography on Hughes and Spain

CALVO, Antonio F.: Translation and interpretation: Langston Hughes and Federico García Lorca, encounter in language. The City of New York University, 2007.

CRUZADO SORIA, Maribel: Prologues to the works of Hughes Blues (Valencia Pretextos, 2004) and Escritos sobre España (La Oficina, 2004).

Sources

  1. Langston Hughes
  2. Langston Hughes