"Lest Harlem Sees Red": Race and Class Themes in the Poetry of Langston Hughes, 1920-1942

By Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

"Lest Harlem Sees Red": Race and Class Themes in the Poetry of Langston Hughes, 1920-1942


Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


"Lest Harlem Sees Red": Race and Class Themes in the Poetry of Langston Hughes, 1920-1942

Universally recognized as the poet laureate of African America Langston Hughes is best known for his folk poetry and social verse. His political poetry, a distinct theme within his social poetic writings, has been slighted. Appearing in small irregularly published left newspapers and journals, Hughes' radical poetry was hidden from critical view. The invisibility of his radical writings was a result of the confluence of two factors. Perhaps, most significant was the refusal of his patrons and major publishing houses to promote his anti-capitalist writings. Nevertheless, Hughes was not simply a victim of bourgeois censorship. He was also an active agent attempting to control his career. Unfortunately, at several moments throughout his career he censored his publications and performances to conform to the conservative political and cultural tastes of the Black "talented tenth" and the bourgeois European American cultural czars. For instance, Hughes targeted his proletarian productions for a left wing audience. Consequently, his ambiguity helped conceal his radical verse from mainstream view.(2)

Faith Berry recovered Hughes' previously uncollected radical poetry, thereby rescuing his leftist literary legacy and establishing the foundation for re-evaluating Hughes' poetry. Since Berry's contribution several scholars have commented on Hughes' radical poetry, or on how critics reacted to these works. Despite these interventions there remains a need to assess Hughes# treatment of race/class themes.(3)

The purpose of this project is multi-layered. In this essay I investigate Langston Hughes' poetic confrontation with the race/class dialectic between 1920 and 1942. I describe the historical and social situations in which Hughes wrote his political poetry, and analyze several poems to illustrate Hughes' exploration of the intersection between race and class. The objective of this study is to uncover the authorial and aesthetic ideologies embedded in the radical poetry Hughes published during this period. I explicate his authorial and aesthetic ideologies by delineating the relationship between mode, form and content in his political verse. I derived my understanding of the terms authorial ideology, aesthetic ideology, mode, form, and content from the works of Emmanuel Ngara, an African Marxist literary critic. Ngara uses authorial ideology to refer to an author#s social vision, and aesthetic ideology to refer to a writer's use of mode and form. Ngara also differentiates between "mode" and "form." Mode, according to Ngara, refers to a poem's external structure, specifically a particular type of poetry, e.g., blues. For him, form is a more complicated concept. He defines it as "that dimension of a poem that includes the mode, the linguistic structure, imagery, symbolism, tone, rhythmic patterns and sound devices." Ngara describes content as the dynamic interaction between historical, social and ideological factors, and subject matter, theme and ideas.(4)

A PERIODIZATION OF HUGHES' POLITICAL POETRY, 1920-1943

Hughes published from 1920 to 1967. During this 47 year period he was a primary participant in three social cultural movements: the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1935), the Proletarian Literary Phase (1930-1935), and the Popular Front (1935-1939). Unfortunately, he died on the eve of a fourth, the Black Arts Movement ( 1966-1973 ). As a partisan of these movements Hughes produced poetry that partly conformed to the politics of these literary political movements. That is, his authorial ideology changed as he adjusted to new social conditions and affiliated with new arts movements. Further, his aesthetic ideology changed to correspond to his new dominant authorial ideology.(5)

A periodization of Hughes' poetry must account for the ways his poetry was transformed by his participation in the Harlem Renaissance, the Proletarian Literary Phase, and the Popular Front arts' movements.

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