Consciousness: Diasporic Impulses and
“Vagrant” Desires in Langston Hughes’s
Nicholas M. Evans
[T]here is nothing more sacred than marriage and family.
Nothing.… Now brothers, in the Holy world you can’t
switch. No, no, no… in the Holy world you better hide that
stuff ’cause see if God made you for a woman, you can’t go
with a man.… You know what the penalty of that is in the
Holy land? Death.… They don’t play with that.… Sister
get to going with another sister—Both women [are
—Louis Farrakhan; May 20, 1990; Oakland, California
(qtd. in Simmons, 222)
A GROWING CONCERN IN LITERARY AND CULTURAL STUDIES IS THE interdependence of issues of race, gender, class, and sexuality. To cite one of many possible critics, Judith Butler emphasizes the importance of considering “convergent set[s] of historical formations of racialized gender, of gendered race, of the sexualization of racial ideals, or the racialization of gender norms” (182).1 These same issues are of increasing interest in studies of the Harlem Renaissance. This essay joins the critical conversation about these concerns by examining the early poetry of Langston Hughes (1902–1967). In the 1920s verse that I analyze, Hughes displays ambivalent identification with both middleclass African American identity, including its prescriptions of respectable masculinity and heterosexuality, and with homosexuality, marked at the time as bohemian and “white.” These poems provide a case study of an artist who affiliated himself with ideologically conflicting racial and sexual formations and who sought to reconcile them, a poet whose desires and identifications exceeded the strictures imposed by those formations.