February 14, 2002

A Dark Brother Singing to America


When poets become public figures our connection to them calcifies. Then we have to go back and find a way to re-establish private relations. Which is why I will tell you that my first memory of Langston Hughes is a shameful one.

My sister and I were sitting on the stairs in our house, reading one of his poems aloud. It was called "Mother to Son" and this is how it began:

Well son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters.
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor –

We were quite young, which is important, given what comes next. We started to read the poem to each other with lots of histrionics. We started to laugh very hard. And our mother found us in this state. I don't remember her exact words, but she did make clear that it was a serious error to read this poem in the tones of Kingfish on "Amos 'n' Andy." An aesthetic as well as a political error. She took the book from our hands and said crisply that she would read it as it should be read. And she did, quietly modulating her inflections and timbre.

It was my first lesson in how many forms of cultural deprivation exist.

Hughes's words have none of the crazed phonetic spellings and apostrophe clumps you find in 19th- and early 20th-century dialects, especially the black variety meant to show readers and listeners just how fond, foolish and fatuous ex-slaves were. Hughes had an ear for subtle and flexible language distinctions. He wrote in black vernacular and in standard English. He spoke Spanish and published translations of García Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral, the Chilean poet and Nobel laureate.

He loved the grand expanse of Whitman's verse and that poet's will to embody all experience. ("I hear America singing/ The varied carols I hear" was Whitman's call; "I, too, sing America./ I am the darker brother" was Hughes's response.) He loved the terse form and double- edged speech of blues singers ("their sadness is not softened by tears but hardened by laughter," he said), and he packed jazz rhythms into his varied carols of black life. It was the blues that first brought out his gift for impersonation. Each lyric was a short soliloquy, part sung, part spoken, by a different character. That allowed him to bring the darker sister into some of his poems, alongside the darker brother.

He wrote fiction, too, and plays. (A musical based on his "Little Ham" recently closed Off Broadway and may reopen later this year. And since Broadway producers are fixated on musical revivals, why don't they consider "Street Scene," the fine musical he wrote with Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice?)

When Hughes turned to journalism, he revived an old dramatic form, the monologue or sketch, in which a kind of vaudevillian Everyman — his was Jesse B. Semple of Harlem — holds forth on social, sexual and political matters, encouraged by a wry middle-class interlocutor who represents the reader.

Hughes is still the best-known literary man of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the young black writers and intellectuals who seized the gilded days of the 1920's to experiment with folk traditions and modernist inventions while, whenever possible, overturning any and all conventions about African-Americans. Racial prejudice made them angry or contemptuous. Racial piety made them scornful and rebellious. That's why they were called the New Negroes.

Everything about Hughes's life looks symbolic now, including his birth near the start of the 20th century (1902) on the first day of what is now Black History Month. Born in Missouri, which was admitted to the Union as a slave state after intense political finagling, he grew up in Kansas, where settlers on both sides of the slavery issue had battled for dominance. He was related by blood or marriage to black abolitionists: one relative fought with John Brown at Harpers Ferry; the other took part in the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, helping to stop a fugitive slave from being sent back to the South. There were other interesting family strands as well: French; Indian; a slave trader; and a slave-holding planter who left his money and land to his black housekeeper and their children.

Now, let us change the focus. This historical panorama gives way to a domestic interior; close-up of a disastrous, unhappy marriage. Hughes's father and mother were not suited to be partners or parents. Cold, acquisitive James Hughes moved to Mexico; there, safe from American whites and blacks, he made money and won power through business and ranching. Moody, self- absorbed Carrie started out as a schoolteacher, but ran off to New York to become an actress. When she failed she had to come home and settle for poetry readings, waitressing and hardscrabble domesticity with a second husband and child. The young Langston spent a lot of time with his maternal grandmother.

In the opening of his two-volume biography, "The Life of Langston Hughes," Arnold Rampersad writes: "As successful as his life seemed to be by its end, with honors and awards inspired by more than 40 books, and the adulation of thousands of readers, Hughes's favorite phonograph record over the years, spun in his bachelor suite late into the Harlem night, remained Billie Holiday's chilly moaning of `God Bless the Child That's Got His Own.' Eventually he had gotten his own, but at a stiff price. He had paid in years of nomadic loneliness and a furtive sexuality; he would die without ever having married, and without a known lover or a child.

"If by the end he was also famous and even beloved, Hughes knew that he had been cheated early of a richer emotional life. Parents could be so cruel! "My theory is," he wrote not long before he died, 'children should be born without parents — if born they must be.' "

Reading Mr. Rampersad is deeply pleasurable. His prose is as fine as his research; his probings, literary and psychological, invite questions instead of just showing off answers.

People found Hughes great company. If they wanted more they were usually in for a letdown. He was emotionally elliptical. He played games, he liked to tease; he would pretend to be more innocent than he was and more tolerant, then let his darts loose and disappear in a cloud of rueful charm. All this is on display in "Remember Me to Harlem" (Knopf), a collection of letters edited by Emily Bernard. Letters are a game of disclose and conceal. They let two people hide in plain sight — go naked while invisible. His correspondent was Carl Van Vechten, novelist, critic and white impresario of the Harlem Renaissance. They were well matched. Van Vechten liked to play, but worldliness was his game, not innocence. He was a champion of modernism in all its forms: Isadora Duncan and Diaghilev's Ballets Russes; Bessie Smith and Ethel Waters; Gertrude Stein and Langston Hughes.

Hughes liked to flash his edges with Van Vechten. "This has been some weekend for me," he wrote in 1925, the year before his first book was published. "It started with a polite party that bored me to incivility. I left. Then on Saturday night the police came and took away the most likeable roommate I've had since I've been working at a summer hotel and it seems that when he left half the earthly belongings of the guests in residence there left with him. But he wore their clothes beautifully. When I build my jail I'm going to put all the good people in and leave the bad ones out. Surely then the world would be amusing. And tonight a man died in front of me at the theater. Heart failure, caused doubtless by having to hear, for the ten-thousandth time, 'Everybody Loves My Baby.' "

I savor these moments because Hughes's benign remoteness frustrates me. It can lower the temperature of his work. He published an enormous amount (he died in 1967), and as Mr. Rampersad writes in an introduction to Hughes's collected poems, he was a literary populist who believed in publishing the bad and the ephemeral along with the good and the lasting. But I mean something more than this. Hughes can slip away before hitting the emotion at its absolute core. He is like an actor who brings heart to each role, but lets his concentration, his emotional stamina waver.

When Hughes is most himself he inhabits the role completely, and disappears inside it with a lovely absence of egotism. In this way he is the opposite of Whitman, who wanted to take in everything he found and speak for it. Hughes wanted to enter into everything and speak through it.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company