Langston Hughes’ Down-Low Dreams

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IN THE 48 HOURS following the 2016 U.S. election, the website of the Academy of American Poets recorded an increase in visitors. There was a surge of tweets and retweets of links to poems on the site. Among the top poems read during the period were Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” (read more than 50,000 times), W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (almost 25,000 times), and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again” (35,000 times). At the time, the narrow loss of that election to a figure like Donald Trump gave rise to soul-searching and a turn to poetry. Even Senator Tim Kaine, in introducing Hillary Clinton when she made her concession speech, turned to poetry. “I’m proud of Hillary Clinton,” said Kaine, “because, in the words of Langston Hughes, she has held fast to dreams.” Kaine was referring to Hughes’ short, somber poem, “Dreams,” which contains the lines: “Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly.”

            What are the dreams with which Hughes was concerned? His porous lines allow multiple interpretations. Because it was written by a young Black poet during the worst years of Jim Crow in America. It is easy to see it as a civil rights poem, as a rallying cry to urge society to renew its promise of racial equality. But one cannot read a poem like this without being aware of the wider notion of the American dream. This is a dream that embraces the notion that any person, regardless of their background, can succeed. Kaine’s use of the poem reflects the fact that Hillary Clinton was the first woman to be nominated for president by a major political party. Hughes’ poem is permeable enough to be all-embracing.

            Dreams in this verse are situated within an organic world. Nature imagery dominates: birds are in flight, fields grow, snow falls. Though involuntary, the dreams here are given a tangible quality: they must be held close and held fast. They are given limbs; they provide sustenance; they die. In our everyday experience, dreams are often as sexual as they are inspirational. Thus understood, Hughes is not only speaking of Black and female bodies; he is also speaking of queer bodies.

            Langston Hughes’ name is among the most recognizable in 20th-century American letters. The Harlem Renaissance poet par excellence, Hughes was the writer who brought blues to poetry, the visionary who spoke of knowing “rivers ancient as the world,” the author of the metaphor that gave Lorraine Hansberry’s great play A Raisin in the Sun its name. He toured widely on two continents, was quoted by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and lived what seemed to be a very public life. And yet, in a number of crucial respects, Hughes remains a mystery.

            First and foremost, there has long been controversy over Hughes’ sexuality. On the one side are those who believe that any suggestion of homosexuality would tarnish his reputation, and so they tend to anesthetize his love life completely. On the other side is evidence that paints a very different picture. Recent books shed valuable light on Hughes’ sexuality, notably Langston Hughes, by W. Jason Miller, and Cultural Entanglements, by Shane Graham, which illuminates his Caribbean links. While it’s safe to say that Hughes was mostly closeted about his sexual desires, there is strong evidence, much of it hiding in plain sight, to suggest that he had same-sex relationships.

            But Hughes was also mysterious with regard to some even more basic facts about himself. His given name was not Langston but James. When he traveled, he made bookings under the name of James Hughes. While we mark the anniversary of his birth as February 1st, there is no formal record of the event. Biographer Arnold Rampersad put his date of birth at “near midnight on 1 February 1902,” in Joplin, Missouri. But since Missouri did not require the registration of infants, it seems the birth was never officially entered. In 2018, poet Eric McHenry found online archival material suggesting that Hughes was born in 1901. The puzzle around his date of birth was a foretaste of things to come.

            Other puzzles: Hughes identified as Black, but his ancestry was mixed, with Native American and French ancestors along with the African-American ones. Was he or was he not a Communist? The question of his sexuality is equally vexed. Despite his amorous correspondence and poems addressed to females who were apparently romantic interests, Hughes was seen as asexual by some, homosexual by others.

            Arnold Rampersad, in the two-volume The Life of Langston Hughes (1986), finds no clear evidence for homosexuality in the archives. That in itself is not surprising. The topic of sexuality in general was so fraught at this time, writers often left no paper trail. Still, in the case of Hughes, I believe we have enough evidence to assert with a high degree of confidence that he was gay. He surrounded himself with gay men. Very early on he formed intense attachments to people like Countee Cullen and Alain Locke. In Locke, the chair of the Department of Philosophy at Howard University, Hughes identified a possible benefactor. But he also developed what was clearly a deep attraction to and an awareness of the other man’s interests.

            “I should like to know you and I hope you’ll write to me again,” Hughes wrote, innocently enough, in an early letter to Locke. By April 6, 1923, he was asking his friend Countee Cullen: “Is Mr Locke married?” In fact, Locke was assuredly not married. In a letter to Locke sent in May 1923, Hughes wrote: “I am going to have some pictures taken this week (one for Mr. Kerlin’s Negro Poets), and I shall send one to you. Then if we meet on some strange road this summer we shall recognize one another. … Do you like Walt Whitman’s poetry? His ‘Song of the Open Road’ and the poems in ‘Calamus’?”

            The reference to Whitman’s homoerotic “Calamus” sequence would not have gone unnoticed by Locke. In the same letter, Hughes also responds to Locke’s disclosure of his plans to visit Germany and the pyramids of Egypt, saying: “How wonderful! I wish I were going with you.” His flirtation was taken seriously by Locke who, in his next letter, pushed the idea of Hughes joining him, prompting the latter to backtrack, saying he would not be available after all. However, maybe they might meet “in Piraeus of Alexandria.” The possibility was described by Hughes as “delightful and too romantic! But, maybe—who knows?” This flirtation continued as Hughes eyed the possibility of attending Howard. Then, on February 2, 1924, something in Hughes snapped. He sent Locke a telegram: “May I come now please let me know tonight.” Two days later, Hughes wrote a letter attempting to explain this outburst:

 

Forgive me for the sudden and unexpected message I sent to you. I’m sorry. I should have known that one couldn’t begin in the middle of the term and that I wasn’t ready to come anyway. But I had been reading all your letters that day and a sudden desire came over me to come to you then, right then, to stay with you and know you. I need to know you. But I am stupid sometimes.

 

            Though it is often asserted that Hughes was not interested in sex, it is clear that he experienced it. He caught a sexually transmitted disease at least once. On one occasion, he even told one of his secretaries that he’d had sex with a sailor on a foreign trip. According to Rampersad, the encounter occurred around 1923, when Hughes was traveling on the West Hesseltine. The ship made several stops, including the Azores and Lagos. According to Rampersad, Hughes engaged in “a swift exchange initiated by an aggressive crewman, with Hughes as the ‘male’ partner.” The following dialogue is laid out in the first volume of Rampersad’s biography:

 

“Won’t it hurt you,” I said.
“Not unless it’s square,” he said. “Are you square?”
“Could be,” I said.
“Let’s see,” he said.

 

Despite the vital nature of this incident to the overall question of Hughes’ sexuality, we are given little more. Who is speaking? Where is the event taking place? None of this is disclosed, if it is known. Rampersad concludes that Hughes was probably asexual. He later said in an interview: “I was quite willing to reveal that Hughes was homosexual and I certainly went looking for the evidence. But I came up with nothing. … But I’m not saying he was not gay. I’m saying the evidence isn’t there. … It’s a complicated business and I don’t know where people get off saying he was gay, he was gay, let’s claim him.”

            Nevertheless, the evidence that Rampersad did not find is there for all to see in his own biography, such as the story of Hughes’ encounter with the unnamed sailor, the disclosure of the supposedly celibate Hughes contracting gonorrhea, and Hughes’ intense relationships with Locke, Cullen, and other men, relationships that surely cannot be described as strictly platonic.

            The virtues of Rampersad’s biography are many, but he reveals something of his attitude toward gay sexuality when he describes Hughes as being a figure at risk of being “claimed” by the LGBT community, and the implied negative judgments of the gay figures around Hughes who regarded him as “viable.” In contrast to this restrained language, one is struck by Rampersad’s openness when describing Hughes in a heterosexual light, such as informing us that he frequented bordellos and prostitutes—which would seem to contradict the assertion about his asexuality.

            Hughes was quite possibly a character that we would recognize today as someone on the down-low—a man who dated women but who also made room for relationships with gay men. He may have told himself that these were men who could help him to advance, a rationalization to avoid admitting to a type of desire he could not acknowledge. Hilton Als has pointed to the poem “Cafe: 3AM,” which takes aim at anti-gay police action and sympathizes with homosexuals: “God, Nature/ or somebody/ made them that way.” He also points to Hughes’ loveless childhood and the impossibility of finding acceptance as a homosexual. Couple these personal issues with the social prejudice of the time, and the idea that Hughes was secretly gay, closeted of necessity, becomes no mere vogue.

 

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It was the need to vent about all this that drove me to write the poem “Langston Hughes in Trinidad: A Closet Drama in Five Scenes” (which appears in Pitch Lake). While the issue of Hughes’ sexuality has been dealt with in Isaac Julien’s beautiful film Looking for Langston, I thought it more appropriate to address the issue in the poet’s own medium, embracing Heathcote Williams’ notion of the investigative poem—one that can weigh the facts and suggest verdicts without deference to the qualifications, nuances, and uncertainties of the scholarly paper. With a few exceptions, each line in the sequence is a fact pulled from the publicly available material on Hughes. For instance, one section of the poem recalls a real social encounter Hughes had on a trip to Italy:

 

The problem was neither man was
as hot as Romeo, the Italian waiter.
Yes, Romeo. Nobody could
compete with a name like that. Or how
he balanced his tray
like he balances lovers; or
the way he showed the way through lush hills
to the sun.
Each leaf was a word Langston never said,
the trees his unwritten rhymes.

 

I felt I owed it to the list of gay men who just so happened to have fallen deeply in love with Hughes, and to Hughes himself, who was obviously laboring under conflicts that are still pertinent to members the LGBT community today.

            In sharp contrast to the complex picture of Hughes the man is his simple, magnificent poetry. How could the author of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “I, Too,” and “The Weary Blues” be so widely misunderstood? In any case, everyone agrees that Hughes died on May 22, 1967. At the funeral, mourners played Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Til You Hear from Me.” Perhaps many of those in attendance, listening to Ellington’s song about trusting a lover, about being in a state of inertia because of love, wondered to whom the song really applied. It was a fittingly ambiguous end to a career that had begun decades before with a poem that, perhaps, said something about what was to come. Hughes’ very first published work, “Fairies,” reads cheekily today:

 

Out of the dust of dreams
Fairies weave their garments.
Out of the purple and rose of old memories
They make rainbow wings.
No wonder we find them such marvelous things!

 

Andre Bagoo’s essay collection The Undiscovered Country just won the 2021 OCM Bocas Prize for Non-Fiction.  His short story collection The Dreaming is forthcoming.

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