Langston Hughes: "In All My Life I Have Never Been Free"

The following is an excerpt from The Letters of Langston Hughes, a collection of correspondences between the author and his loved ones and contemporaries. In this particular letter, Hughes eloquently describes the freedom he experiences when writing.


In all my life I have never been free. I have never been able to do anything with freedom, except in the field of my writing. With my parents, with my employers in my struggle for food, in all the material circumstances of life, I have been forced to move this way and that -- only when I sat down for a moment to write have I been able to put down what I wanted to put down, to say what I’ve wanted to say, when and where I choose .... As long as I worked on my novel, dear Godmother, I think we were One -- we both wanted it finished soon, we both agreed about what was being done. But when you told me that I should have begun my writing again the week after I returned from Cuba -- I must disagree with you. I must never write when I do not want to write. That is my last freedom and I must keep it for myself .... Then when you tell me that you give me more than anybody ever gave me before -- ($225.00 a month -- my allowance and half of Louise) -- and that I have been living in idleness since the first of March -- I must feel miserably ashamed. I must feel that I have been misusing your kindness and that it would be wrong to you for me to take your help any more when I cannot write -- when I cannot do what you believe I should be doing -- when I am afraid of making you unhappy because you have been kind good to me -- and when I know that I cannot write at all on any sort of pre-arranged schedule. The nervous strain of finishing the novel by a certain time has shown me that. Almost all of one’s life must be measured and timed as it is -- meals every day at a certain hour; if I am working for a salary -- to work at a certain time; to bed at a certain time in order to get enough sleep; letters to be answered by a certain time in order to avoid discourtesy or loss of business. So far in this world, only my writing has been my own, to do when I wanted to do it, to finish only when I felt that it was finished, to put it aside or discard it completely if I chose. For the sake of my physical body I have washed restaurant thousands of hotel dishes, cooked, scrubbed decks, worked 12 to 15 hours a day on a farm, swallowed my pride for the sake help of philanthropy and charity -- but nobody ever said to me “You must write now, you must finish that poem tomorrow. You must begin to create on the first of the month.” Because then I could not have have written, I could not have created anything. I could only have put down empty words at best .... The creative urge must come from within, always as you know dear G., -- or it is less than true .... So I am sorry if you feel that I have been unnecessarily idle. And, I am ashamed beyond words, if I have misused your generousity. I did not want ever to do that. And if I have misunderstood your words advice, your kind and sincere talks with me the last few weeks, blame only my stupidity, Godmother, not my heart. My love and devotion are yours always, and my deepest respect and gratitude, and my willingness always to listen to you in the future as in the past and to be guided by you as nearly as I can. But I must tell you the truth so that there will be no wall between us.

Excerpted from THE LETTERS OF LANGSTON HUGHES by Langston Hughes. Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel. Copyright © 2015 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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