Communist Party USA

  On a cool, tropical morning in the tumultuous year of 1931, the American poet Langston Hughes woke up snugly and confusedly on the inside of a large clay drainage pipe. The pipe, his home for the previous night, was one of a series of large pipes that sat estranged on the side of a mountainous road somewhere in rural Haiti, perhaps to later be placed under roads to drain the overflowing streams that flood under the weight of violent storms with their heavy rains. But at this moment they remained underutilized in the applied field of water redistribution and instead became a source of warmth for the poet whose bus had run out of gas the night before. At this moment in time, the 29-year-old poet faced an uncertain future — he was relatively well-known in literary circles but was in no way famous; he was consistently winning literary prizes but was in no way rich; well-endowed with inspiration, yet destitute of financial stability. That he made it this far was impressive enough, considering the overwhelming odds against him as a working-class Black man in America, but despite it all, he went on to establish himself as one of the most celebrated poets of the 20th century. In his childhood, Langston Hughes lived a volatile life, his father left behind the family and the unbearable racism of America for Mexico; his mother traveled incessantly to find work, he lived in and out of poverty often with his grandmother as he moved from Missouri to Kansas, from Kansas to Illinois, from Illinois to Ohio, all before graduating high school. But it was his time in Cleveland, while attending Central High School between 1916 and 1920, when his passion for poetry developed most rapidly and thoroughly. Ethel Weimer’s second-year English course taught him the works of Amy Lowell, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and, most impactfully to the young Mr. Hughes, Carl Sandburg. “Although I had read of Carl Sandburg before . . . I didn’t really know him until Miss Weimer. . . . Then I began to try to write like Carl Sandburg” (Hughes 1993). The young poet was also fervently engaged in extracurricular activities and often wore a sweater that proved this; it was covered in club pins. He was on the track team, served as a lieutenant in the school’s military training corps, edited the yearbook, served as class president, occasionally made the monthly honor roll, and wrote many of his early poems for the school’s magazine, the Belfry Owl. Moving between overpriced kitchenette apartments, Hughes witnessed the harsh realities of the segregated geography and racist economy. But he also encountered the fleeting cultural beauty that blossomed. Cleveland’s Central High School, a Victorian Gothic building on Central Avenue (since destroyed), hosted a diverse community of European immigrants from Poland, Russia, Italy, and also served a growing Black community. This made for a hotbed of radical ideas. His classmates lent him The Gadfly, introduced him to the Liberator, and took him to hear Eugene Debs speak. They knew that it was wrong that Debs was locked up, they knew that Lenin sent a shockwave from Russia to the slums of Woodlawn Avenue, “and when the Russian Revolution broke out, our school almost held a celebration” (Hughes 2002, 49). The years after graduation, like much of his life, involved a seamless continuation of movement, never finding a firm residence for more than a year, floating from one place or job to the next, but always with his sights set on his true passion: writing. From 1925 to 1930 his…

Read full article on Communist Party USA:
Langston Hughes: Progressive poet and wanderer