Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cultural Exchange in a Black Atlantic Web: South African Literature, Langston Hughes, and Negritude

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Cultural Exchange in a Black Atlantic Web: South African Literature, Langston Hughes, and Negritude

Article excerpt

Ezekiel Mphahlele once wrote that Ebony magazine in the 1950s showed black South Africans the "achievements of the black race. Something to celebrate. And oh, how badly we needed that in our corner of Africa" ("Your History" 161). As this quotation hints, African-American culture more generally was deeply inspiring and influential for the generation of black South Africans who came of age in the mid-twentieth century. (1) The art and writing of the Harlem Renaissance was especially important to the rise of a new generation of black South African writers. The very first issue of the highly influential Drum Magazine, for example, began by reprinting Countee Cullen's poem "Heritage" (beginning with the line "What is Africa to me"). Going back a bit further, we know from Peter Abrahams's autobiography, Tell Freedom, that his adolescent discovery of The New Negro anthology and other works of African-American literature in the 1930s provided almost an epiphanic moment for him: to the authors of those works, Abrahams wrote, "I owe a great debt for crystallizing my vague yearnings to write and for showing me the long dream was attainable" (230). One of those authors is Langston Hughes, whom Mphahlele and Richard Rive have also admired in print and described as a friend. (2)

Yet the full extent of Hughes's role in launching the literary movement around Drum Magazine has begun to come clear only more recently, with the publication of Langston Hughes and the South African Drum Generation: The Correspondence, edited by myself and John Walters (2010), and of Hughes's brief correspondence with a young Bessie Emery--soon Bessie Head--edited by David Chioni Moore and published in Research in African Literatures (2010). These letters help reveal how profoundly the relationship with Langston Hughes contributed to the South African writers' development of an urban, cosmopolitan identity at a time when the apartheid government was determined to "fossilize" Africans into "tribal inventions," in Can Themba's phrase (qtd. in Nixon 28). A careful analysis of their exchange of letters contributes to a more complex understanding of the contours and character of this emerging cosmopolitan identity--a cosmopolitanism that at first was desperately desired by black South African intellectuals in the 1950s, and then was forced upon many of them by the vicissitudes of exile. The letters also show Hughes connecting the South Africans to a larger network of writers in his attempts to build a black Atlantic identity that could both rival and, when necessary, replace the nation as a staging ground in the global competition for literary legitimacy and prestige. In turn, these increasingly complex and cosmopolitan relationships across the sea had notable effects on Hughes's late work, an influence that merits close study in its own right. For present purposes, however, I want to focus on the impact Hughes had on South African writers of the 1950s and 1960s.

These relationships were not without tensions. Indeed, though Hughes was both an inspiration as a poet and an invaluable contact for helping to get African writing published and promoted internationally, his work caused considerable ambivalence for the South African writers. This is because much of his writing, especially his most famous poetry from the 1920s, painted a romanticized portrait of a primitive, tribal Africa that in many ways appeared to corroborate the "separate development" rationale for the apartheid policies implemented in South Africa starting in 1948. Most often, though, the South African writers channeled their discomfort with such depictions of Africa as we see in Hughes's work into their quarrels with Negritude--the Paris-based movement led by Leopold Sedar Senghor from Senegal, Aime Cesaire of Martinique, and Leon-Gontrans Damas from French Guiana--a movement openly indebted to and inspired by the work of Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and other writers associated with the Harlem Renaissance. …

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