Langston Hughes: A Life Dreamed in Letters

Portait of African American poet Langston Hughes with a statue, 1955. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)
Portait of African American poet Langston Hughes with a statue, 1955. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

When I think of Langston Hughes at pivotal moments in his life, I think of my favorite photographs of him, such as the one with him in a jacket, tie, and rather urbane looking fedora. That is the way I imagine him looking when he returned to Harlem from his travels to discover that his play Mulatto was being produced for Broadway without his consultation. Or I imagine him sitting on segregated trains, riding to a speaking engagement with his hat sitting next to him, his eyes looking out on a country that he knew was both fascinating and frustrating, one that guaranteed him his freedom and then challenged him to claim the same. I imagine him sitting there dreaming in the manner of poets, one image shifting into another, pieces of language made song growing out of one another like a fine crochet.

Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in 1963, and Langston Hughes died four years later. Hughes was 62 years old when Dr. King delivered that speech, and the Dean of Afro American letters, as Hughes was sometimes called, had lived and fought and dreamed through nearly a half century of a life in letters, a life where he wrote under the most extreme censorship.

In the McCarthy era, he was brought before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee on suspicion of being aligned with enemies of the government. He dreamed and lived the life of a man of letters with a courage that has not been described often enough as the courage of mythic heroes, a mettle that faced a nation hobbled even in our own day by its own contradictions.

It is appropriate, I submit, that we begin Black History Month with the birth of the great poet Hughes -- a writer whose mind produced the classic poem, "The Negro Dreams of Rivers," a masterpiece that rolled out of his imagination and his love when he was not quite 25 years old, from a genius who helped to fashion a literary tradition made real by the ability to dream.

Hughes' was a courage we speak of when we speak of great people, people of an imponderable depth of spirit. He gave his life to his work, and to his people, and to his nation in the face of adversity that would crush most aspiring poets, and he gave this devotion with the highest discipline and civility.

In a Chicago Defender article entitled, "Adventures in Dining," Hughes wrote of his experiences traveling on trains in the South during a lecture tour. Dated June 2, 1945, the article comes at the end of World War II and after Roosevelt's federal order prohibiting discrimination in the armed forces. He sat where he was not supposed to sit, and he was served. When asked by one waiter if he was Puerto Rican or American, he responded, "I'm hungry." It was his humor in the face of adversity, and even danger, that carried him through at times, but it was not a humor of genuflection. It was the humor of a certain dignity from the poet who took the musical phenomenon of the blues and crafted from it a poetic form, the blues poem.

His accomplishments crossed the genres. Mulatto would hold the record for the Broadway production of a play by an African American playwright until Lorraine Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun, which was directed by Lloyd Richards, mentor and director to August Wilson. The central metaphor of Hansberry's play comes from the poem "Harlem" by Hughes. The tradition in African American letters lives, and grows this way. A teenage Gwendolyn Brooks was encouraged by Hughes when her mother took her to one of her readings, and it was her mother who told her she would be the female Paul Laurence Dunbar. The African American tradition in letters extends through its influences. It is as much African American as American, and it embraces the African Diaspora.

Hughes traveled in the Caribbean where he met Nicolas Guillen, and Hughes wrote with Afrocentric imagery before the phrase Afro-Centrism was formed. He wrote out of the faith of his imagination and a faith in the imagination is what created this dream we live, this United States of America, with its promises, contradictions, and challenges.