Essay on “Shakespeare of Harlem” during the Harlem Renaissance

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Langston Hughes and the Powers That Be

When it comes to poetry pushing racial freedoms, only a few have gone as far as Langston Hughes. Langston was a famous American writer and poet in the 20th century. He published many well-known works such as ​I, Too, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, ​and ​Let America Be America Again.​ Some of his poetry was controversial for the Cold-War era time, as he was investigated by the American government for interpreting his poetry as Communist propaganda. Looking back on this event with a different contextual lens, we can ask ourselves, “Was it justified for the American government to investigate Langston Hughes under the suspicion of being a Communist threat?” Before that question can be answered, some context of the world that he lived in, and the powers that be must be explained.

The beginning of this series of events starts with Marxism. Marxism is a philosophical system created by the famous German philosopher Karl Marx. Marx believed that in society there are two classes: the Bourgeois and Proletarians; with the former being the upper class and the latter being the working class. These two classes are forever in a state of conflict due to the ideology of Capitalism promoting and favoring the Bourgeois. This conflict creates an inevitable position of inequality where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Marx proposed that eventually, the Proletarians would revolt against the Bourgeois, coming from his famous slogan, “Workers of the world, Unite!”(Marx, 1848). Only then would a new economic system be created where equality is promoted. This system would be known as Communism (The Curious Classroom).

Eventually, in 1917, Communism would have its first time in use when it was adopted by Russia and other neighboring countries after the Russian Revolution. Russia would now be known as the Soviet Union. With their new ideology, The Soviet Union went from a peasant country to a global superpower alongside Britain and America, During World War II, America and the Soviet Union were allies but the clashing of the two economic systems and previous tensions between the two world powers lead to as Wikipedia writes, “​a period of geopolitical tension” (Wikipedia, 2019) known as the Cold War. At this time America saw Communism as a menace and a direct attack on freedom and democracy itself.

For America, the fear of Soviet Union world domination leads to a massive amount of anti-Communist hysteria known as the Red Scare. It became blue vs. red. Us vs. them. But soon this hysteria would lead to a bigger problem than communism. In 1947, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created to find and prosecute any hidden communists living in the American public. Led by Joseph McCarthy, they called in suspected communists with very little tangible evidence and forced them into a catch-22. They had to plead guilty and lie about not being a communist, or they were punished for pleading innocent. Ultimately their lives would be ruined. They focused on many demographics in the public, but they had a particular focus on the American film industry. Since they controlled most of the entertainment of America, and they had more leftist views, the industry went under heavy fire from the HUAC. In the end, thousands of innocent Americans lost their jobs, were imprisoned, and had their reputations completely destroyed. These events could only be described as a witch hunt. This even inspired the writing of The Crucible; a play about the Salem Witch Trials written by Arthur Miller.

Today, we now call this tactic of political investigation after the leader of the HUAC, McCarthyism. While McCarthyism may have protected America from a potential wave of communism, the damage that it did to America was far greater than any amount of damage that was actually done by Communism.

This is the world that Langston Hughes existed in. He lived from February 1, 1902, to May 22, 1962. Throughout his life, he lived through both World Wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. He lived in a time full of conflicts, figures, problems, and clashing superpowers much bigger than he was. He may have been famous, but he was just a single man. He was the first African-American man to make his living solely off of his writing. This shows America’s further advancement of racial equality as he was liked enough to make money solely off his academics. As stated by the Poetry Archive, “Born in Joplin, Missouri, he had a migratory childhood following his parents' separation, spending time in the American Midwest and Mexico. He attended Columbia University from 1921-1922, but left, disillusioned by the coolness of his white peers… After leaving University, Hughes traveled, first on a freighter to Africa… then extensively in Europe before heading back to the USA.” (Poetry Archive, 2019).

Living most of his life before the Civil Rights Movement, he faced a life of racial oppression and segregation. From this, he became very vocal in his poetry about racial oppression. Such as his famous poem, ​I, Too, ​a poem about how African-Americans will someday be as equal to white people. In 1928, he moved to Harlem, New York, and joined the Harlem Resistance; a cultural pot of African-American art and culture (Poetry Archive). Later In 1932, Langston and some members of the Harlem Resistance went to Moscow for a year to make a film about black representation called ​Black and White. They wanted to get away from what the New York Times calls, “the distorted and stereotypical depictions of the African-American experience that plagued Hollywood films.”(Wilson, 2017). In the U.S.S.R, they were in a different culture entirely where they could make a film with real black representation. There Langston may have gained an interest in Communism due to the emphasis on equality in Marxism. In Marx’s writing, everyone was equal; no matter race, sex, or age. Since he lived a life of racial discrimination, it makes sense he would be interested in a system that was so forward for the time.

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From here, Langston would publish many works that showed his interest in Communism. Such as ​The Ballad of Lenin. ​This expressed interest did not go well for him, as he became a subject of interest for the American government. Eventually, he was brought before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Government Operations in 1953 where they questioned him on his visit to the Soviet Union, the meaning of his poetry, and his loyalty to his country. Though in the end, he came out of the investigation unscathed, his reputation did not. After that, it would take years for his image to be fully restored. All was not lost, as he became a cultural emissary for Europe and Africa. He later died in 1962 from prostate cancer. Just two years before the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He was truly revolutionary for the time as he was always pushing new ways of thinking. Being the first Black writer, he paved the way for future African-American writers. His work with the Harlem Resistance had huge importance for black representation and culture. He was never afraid to voice his opinions on racial oppression and to speak out in a fiery manner for equality. The world would be a different place without him.

Langston may have been a famous public figure, but still an American citizen and just as likely to face the mighty fist of McCarthyism. With some of his more controversial writing, it is not surprising to see that the US government investigated Langston Hughes because they felt his writing expressed communist ideas, “So we have encountered quite a number of your works, and I would be less than frank with you, sir, if I did not say that there is a question in the minds of the committee, and in the minds of a good many people, concerning the general objective of some of those poems, whether they strike a Communist, rather than an anti-Communist note.” (Testimony of Langston Hughes, 1953).

A lot of Langston's poetry focuses on the themes of revolution. In his song, ​A New Song ​Langston writes, “I speak in the name of the black millions awakening to action. Let all others keep silent a moment. I have this word to bring, this thing to say, this song to sing… Revolt! Arise! The Black And White World shall be one! The Worker’s World! The past is done! A new dream flames against the sun!” (Poetrynook, 2019). Though these themes of revolution are about the civil rights of black people in America and not Communism, One can tie these themes of revolution to Marxism. This is exactly what the Senate has done here.

He also wrote poetry directly referencing the Soviet Union. Such as ​The Ballad of Lenin,​ a poem about the first leader of the Soviet Union, “Comrade Lenin of Russia, high in a marble tomb, move over, Comrade Lenin, and give me room. I am Ivan, the peasant, boots all muddy with soil. I fought with you, Comrade Lenin. now I have finished my toil” (Poetrynook, 2019). While the poem does not explicitly praise Lenin, writing a poem about him was enough to incite investigation. During the testimony, the poem was used as evidence against him, “Mr. Cohn. I am trying, Mr. Hughes, because I think you have gone pretty far in some of these things, and I think you know pretty well what you did. When you wrote something called 'Ballads of Lenin,' did you believe that when you wrote it? Mr. Hughes. Believe what, sir? Mr. Cohn. Comrade Lenin of Russia speaks from marble: ​On guard with the workers forever-- The world is our room! ​Mr. Hughes. That is a poem. One can not state one believes every word of a poem. Mr. Cohn. I do not know what one can say. I am asking you specifically do you believe in the message carried and conveyed in this poem?... Mr. Hughes. It would demand a great deal of discussion. You can not say yes or no.” (Testimony of Langston Hughes, 1953). Once again, it’s not surprising to see that the US government would have investigated Mr. Hughes for writing a poem mentioning Lenin.

Another piece of evidence that the HUAC had against Langston Hughes was his visit to The U.S.S.R. This was, in fact, one of the first things to be brought up in the hearing, “Senator Dirksen. Would you care to tell us whether you have traveled to the Soviet Union? Mr. Hughes. I have, sir, yes. Senator Dirksen. For an extended period? Mr. Hughes. I was there for about a year… I went to make a movie… Senator Dirksen. That I assume was a Soviet-made movie… Senator Dirksen. As I recall, all movies in the Soviet Union are government products, really, are they not?... Mr. Cohn. Have you ever attended a Communist Party meeting? Mr. Hughes. No, sir, I have not.” (Testimony of Langston Hughes, 1953). This makes sense because if they were looking for potential communists, the first place they would look is someone that spent a year in Communist territory where they may have been poisoned by Communist ideas and attended Communist meetings.

It is understandable why the US government may have interpreted his work as Communist propaganda, but as Langston Hughes says, “That poem would mean many things to different people.” ( Testimony of Langston Hughes, 1953). Someone may read his work and interpret it as inciting Communism, and some may not. But just because one does, does not make it justified. This is because of the literal text itself and the author’s intention. Out of his body of work, none of it explicitly states his personal admiration of Communism. For every poem that is brought up, Langston delivers a different intent and meaning than what the senate interpreted. Such as ​The Ballad of Lenin, ​“In my opinion is a poem symbolizing what I felt at that time Lenin as a symbol might mean to workers in various parts of the world. The Spanish Negro in the cane fields, the Chinese in Shanghai, and so on.” (Testimony of Lanston Hughes, 1953). Just because a person talks about a subject, it does not mean they believe in it. This is how one can interpret that the investigations against Langston Hughes were not justified. It also shows how even under the US government’s skewed lens, they were unable to find him guilty.

He may have not been inciting communism but he was inciting a revolution through his words. A revolution to change the status quo. A revolution to give power to the people with the least power in our society. This would make any main power nervous. Though he was a single man, a man in a world filled with major conflicts. A world filled with new ideas like Marxism and the systems designed to tear it down like McCarthyism. A world filled with discrimination and segregation. And a world full of people who were out for Communist blood. He may have been a single man, but this never stopped Langston Hughes from trying his hardest to change the world and the powers that be.

  1. Chambre, Henri T., and David T. McLellan. “Marxism.” ​Encyclopædia Britannica​, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2 Oct. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marxism​.
  2. “Cold War.” ​Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 4 Dec. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War.
  3. History.com Editors. “Cold War History.” ​History.com, A&E Television Networks, 27 Oct. 2009, ​https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/cold-war-history.
  4. Hughes, Langston. “Ballads of Lenin.” ​Poetrynook.com, Poetrynook, 2019, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/ballads-lenin.
  5. Hughes, Langston. “A New Song.” ​Poetrynook.com, Poetrynook, 2019, https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/new-song-0.
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  7. Ted-Ed. “What Is McCarthyism? And How Did It Happen? - Ellen Schrecker.” ​YouTube, Ted-Ed, 14 Mar. 2017, ​https://youtu.be/N35IugBYH04.
  8. “Testimony of Langston Hughes .” ​NPR, NPR, https://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2003/may/mccarthy/hughes.html.
  9. Wilson, Jennifer. “When the Harlem Renaissance Went to Communist Moscow.” ​The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2017,
  10. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marxism
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  15. https://www.poetryarchive.org/poet/langston-hughes
  16. https://youtu.be/N35IugBYH04
  17. https://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2003/may/mccarthy/hughes.html
  18. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/opinion/when-the-harlem-renaissance-went-to-communist-moscow.html​.
  19. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/opinion/when-the-harlem-renaissance-went-to-communist-moscow.html
  20. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/21/opinion/when-the-harlem-renaissance-went-to-communist-moscow.html
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