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Hughes, Langston (1902-1967)  

Langston Hughes, whose literary legacy is enormous and varied, was closeted, but homosexuality was an important influence on his literary imagination, and many of his poems may be read as gay texts.

James Mercer Langston Hughes, born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, began life in poverty and frequently moved from city to city as his parents tried unsuccessfully to escape racism and economic hardship. Hughes's father, an attorney, gave up on the United States and, in 1903, left his family to live and work in Mexico. The young Hughes lived alternately with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, and his mother in whatever city she could find work.

Hughes, as a seventh grader, worked cleaning the lobby and toilets of a hotel near his school. These impoverished conditions made indelible impressions on the young boy. He would never forget his place as a poor black in America.

In the early 1920s, Hughes contemplated his place in the world as a poor "Negro" and as a poet. Writing his famous "A Negro Speaks of Rivers," he expressed the silent viewpoint of many black Americans who looked to spiritual growth as they faced racism and economic stagnation.

Hughes attended Columbia University from 1921 to 1922 but left to travel (most often working to pay his passage) extensively in Europe and Africa before deciding to enter Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, where he studied from 1926 to 1929. Even before graduating from college, Hughes had published The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

From this point on, he wrote in virtually every genre and published nonstop until his death in New York on May 22, 1967. Hughes's literary legacy is enormous and varied. He holds an undisputed and honored place in American letters. Hughes always claimed that he was committed to writing simply about the black experience in a language the masses could understand, learn from, and enjoy. He embraced jazz, spirituals, and the blues in his works and, thus, became the people's poet.

One of the greatest ironies in the life of the people's poet was his own understandable silence regarding the oppression of gays. As a gay man, Hughes lived that secret life silently in the confines of a very narrow, but well-constructed closet--one that still shelters him today.

On June 13, 1991, The Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled "Battle Lines" reporting on the controversy that erupted over the use of his poem "Tell Me" for a poster ushering in Lesbian and Gay History Month. The five-line poem asks a question Hughes posed often in his work: Why must my dreams be deferred?

The poem is a kind of gestalt in which the phrase "Why should it be my" is used three times to emphasize personal anguish over loneliness and the unattainability of dreams. The "it" of the poem can be taken to be racism, poverty, homosexuality, or a host of other reasons that dreams are not achieved.

Thus, the poem is an appropriate expression of outrage against heterosexism. Using Hughes's own words to express this sentiment, however, had the additional power of reclamation: The poster's gay designers boldly claimed Hughes as one of their own.

Hughes's biographers do little to settle definitely the question of the poet's sexuality: Faith Berry holds that Hughes was gay, whereas Arnold Rampersad--though he documents Hughes's admission of a homosexual encounter with a seaman in 1926--asserts that he could not find incontrovertible evidence that the writer was gay.

It should not be surprising to anyone who has tried to recapitulate the lives of literary figures during pre-Stonewall America that finding physical traces of overt homosexuality is rare indeed. The closet, by the turn of the century, had been so firmly erected by heterosexism that the fear of coming out could last a lifetime, especially for public figures.

For Rampersad and others who refuse to read between the lines in order to elucidate the facts of Hughes's life, it is clear that a political agenda is operative. These scholars are unwilling to associate an African-American cultural and literary hero, one of America's most celebrated black writers, with a perceived "abnormality."

Unless this attitude is transcended, a better understanding of Hughes, the man and artist, will be difficult to effect. There is ample evidence in Rampersad's biography to indicate that Hughes was gay, especially his close alliances with such gay men as Alain Locke, Noël Sullivan, Richard Bruce Nugent, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman. That Hughes managed his closet so closely is testimony to the oppression he endured.

Recently, scholars have started to pay attention to the influence of homosexuality on Hughes's literary imagination. Many of Hughes's poems invite gay readings. Such poems enable scholars to theorize on the poet's use of the male-male gaze as a common feature in his writings.

Focusing on such poems as "Joy," "Desire," "Café: 3 A. M.," "Waterfront Streets," "Young Sailor," "Trumpet Player," "Tell Me," and many poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), we can identify and other gay markings.

As this kind of scholarship continues, as the reading public is made more aware that sexuality has great consequences for artistic creativity, and as the homosexual closet is deconstructed, surely then Hughes will take his place in literary history not just as a race and folk poet, but as one whose complex achievement includes battling oppression through his veiled homosexual expressivity. Then we will see that Hughes was not silent about his gayness after all.

Alden Reimonenq


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Langston Hughes in 1943.
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Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill & Co., 1983.

Emmanuel, James A. Langston Hughes. Boston: Twayne, 1967.

Hemphill, Essex. "Looking for Langston: An Interview with Isaac Julien." Brother to Brother. Essex Hemphill, ed. Boston: Alyson, 1991. 174-180.

_____. "Undressing Icons." Brother to Brother. Essex Hemphill, ed. Boston: Alyson, 1991. 181-183.

Lewis, David L. When Harlem Was in Vogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Prowle, Allen D. "Langston Hughes." The Black American Writer, Volume II: Poetry and Drama. Chris Bigsby, ed. DeLand, Fl.: Everett/Edwards, 1969. 77-87.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume I: 1902-1941, I Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

_____. The Life of Langston Hughes, Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Smith, Raymond. "Langston Hughes: Evolution of the Poetic Persona." The Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined. Victor A. Kramer, ed. New York: AMS, 1987. 235-251.

Story, Ralph D. "Patronage and the Harlem Renaissance: You Get What You Pay For." College Language Association Journal 32.3 (1989). 284-295.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes & the Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Williams, Sherley Anne. "Langston Hughes and the Negro Renaissance: 'Harlem Literati in the Twenties'." The Langston Hughes Review (Spring 1985): 37-39.

Woods, Gregory. "Gay Re-readings of the Harlem Renaissance Poets." The Journal of Homosexuality 26:2.3 (Fall 1994): 127-142.


    Citation Information
    Author: Reimonenq, Alden  
    Entry Title: Hughes, Langston  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 28, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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