Academic journal article African American Review

"We, Too, Rise with You": Recovering Langston Hughes's African (Re)Turn 1954-1960 in an African Treasury, the Chicago Defender, and Black Orpheus

Academic journal article African American Review

"We, Too, Rise with You": Recovering Langston Hughes's African (Re)Turn 1954-1960 in an African Treasury, the Chicago Defender, and Black Orpheus

Article excerpt

   Oh, Congo brother
   With your tribal marks,
   We, too, emerge
   From ageless darks.
   We, too, emit
   A frightening cry
   From body scarred,
   Soul that won't die.
   We encarnadine the sky.--Langston Hughes, "We, Too" 11. 1-9

In spite of a persistent tendency among critics to dismiss and occlude his radical work, most readers of Langston Hughes now know that Hughes was a revolutionary writer. The "Harlem Renaissance" poet who in the 1920s wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and "The Weary Blues" is also the "red" poet who in the 1930s wrote powerful poems embracing socialism ("Good Morning Revolution" and "One More 'S' in the U.S.A."), armed struggle ("The Militant"), poems eulogizing Lenin and supporting high-profile campaigns of the Communist Party USA ("Scottsboro" and "Chant for Tom Mooney"), as well as anti-colonial poems calling for Third World liberation ("Call of Ethiopia" and "Roar China!"). But while Hughes's "red" '30s have benefited greatly from recent revisionist scholarship, the recovery of his radical '50s and '60s has not kept pace. (1) This lag leaves intact the common perception that Hughes's revolutionary work belongs only to the youthful phase of Hughes's career and that his experience of being called before the McCarthy Committee in 1953 caused Hughes to turn his back on the political radicalism he had embraced during the 1930s and 1940s. (2) This depressing view of Hughes's career trajectory grows only more cynical in its treatment of his final period of work. According to some, Hughes's final collections of poetry--Ask Your Mama and The Panther and the Lash--show a weak, aging poet who, having fallen behind the times, struggles to repackage his tired, decades-old radical poetry to make it marketable to the young Black Power and Black Arts generation. (3)

Hughes's neglected body of work from 1954-1960 does not support this view of his late career as politically declining and opportunistic; instead, it reveals a black writer finding an immediate and growing renewal of revolutionary commitment and energy by embracing the new, decolonizing Africa and its writers. (4) While Hughes had a lifelong commitment to African liberation from empire, the surging pace of Third World decolonization beginning in the mid-1950s had a transformative impact on Hughes, inspiring the acceleration and deepening of Hughes's anti-colonialist nationalism and pan-Africanism that I consider here as his African (re)turn. (5) Together with Asian and other oppressed peoples, black Africans seized not only Hughes's but the world's imagination in an epochal wave of Third World decolonization and revolt marked by the 1955 gathering of Non-Aligned Nations in Bandung, Indonesia, and followed immediately by the birth of dozens of newly independent, and often left, black African states, led by Ghana (1957) and Guinea (1958).

In this essay, I examine several key texts of Hughes's African (re)turn: An African Treasury, the anthology Hughes assembled from 1954-1960, and uncollected Simple columns that Hughes penned for the Chicago Defender in the first half of 1959. I also survey briefly the poetry of Hughes's African (re)turn in the context of African and Third World liberation struggles. Significantly, Hughes began work on An African Treasury only months after appearing before the McCarthy Committee. It was a six-year project that provides a window into the process of Hughes's political transformation in response to the emergence of the new black Africa. The uncollected Simple columns--about striking back instead of "turning the other cheek" to one's oppressor and about dreams of a black nation rising in the South--mark 1959 as a pivotal year. By examining these Simple columns within the context of contemporary black news editorials regarding African decolonization, we begin to see that in the 1950s Hughes not only participated in but sought to lead the broader radicalization of the US black political imagination--inspired by the ascendant African freedom struggles--more often associated with the '60s. …

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