Transnationalism in Its African-American Travels: The Politics of Location in Langston Hughes' I Wonder as I Wander

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Transnationalism in Its African-American Travels: The Politics of Location in Langston Hughes' I Wonder as I Wander

"...my interests had broadened from Harlem and the American Negro to include an interest in all the colored peoples of the world -- in fact, in all the people of the world, as I related to them and they to me."

Langston Hughes(2)

THE TRANSATLANTIC AND THE TRANSNATIONAL

In the first of his autobiographical works, The Big Sea,(3) Hughes constructs a narrative in which African diasporic or black transatlantic political alliances are romantically longed for and are sustained with some difficulty in reality. Underpinning the desire in The Big Sea for a vital black transatlantic tradition is a Pan-Africanism that advances the claim that continental and New World Africans share a political consciousness and a racial identity developed in response to the experiences of racial subjugation and economic exploitation. If "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which is reprinted in The Big Sea and which provides a subtext for that narrative is the call of early twentieth-century African diasporic consciousness,(4) then I Wonder as I Wander (the second of Hughes' autobiographies) is the refrain modulating the key of these earlier texts (Big Sea, 55-56). It achieves this modulating effect by disrupting the romantic notions of African diasporic consciousness and racial memory found in these two previously published texts.

In the second installment of his autobiography, Hughes attempts to move away from black transatlantic concerns to what initially appears to be a form of universal humanism. The deceptive thing about this move is that the universalism apparent in the above epigraph is actually what might be considered as an interlocking transnational -- not transatlantic -- network in which Harlem and the American Negro are linked to Haiti, Cuba, Soviet Central Asia, China, Japan, and Spain to name the places that are part of Hughes' new cartography. Although Hughes leaves off in The Big Sea with an unachieved connection with Africa (and coextensively with the black masses in the United States), he picks up this point again in I Wonder as I Wonder in order to open up the space in which he sees racialized identities as being formed by and in response to white supremacy and colonialism. He also comes to see how transnational anti-racist alliances, ones that allow him to engage with people of color in addition to continental and New World Africans, are necessary to African-American social struggle.

Of course, Hughes was not the first African-American writer to suggest that African Americans might find that their experiences are similar to those of continental and other New World Africans and to those of "colored peoples" around the world. W.E.B. Du Bois made similar claims in his work from the 1920s.(5) What seems to be different in Hughes' assertion of these claims, particularly in I Wonder as I Wander, is that the central tropes of movement -- diaspora, ascent, and descent or cultural immersion -- that inform African-American literary and cultural traditions are shown to be not the only ways in which movement across space and through time shapes black subjectivity and political responses.(6) These issues, as Hughes understands them, are not only relevant to black subject formation and political struggle; they are also closely related to the central premise that propels this text: namely, Hughes' attempt to overcome the racial barriers that impeded his making a living with his writing.

When he begins the journeys (covering 1931 to 1938) that are detailed in I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes withdraws from the desire to ground his writings in a distinctly black, laboring class identity and/or an African identity -- the two points of origin he previously saw as grounding his writings and that of his cohorts in the Harlem Renaissance. Other identities and concerns find their place alongside these two identities. …