Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs (The Collected Works of Langston Hughes)

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Among the most prolific of American writers, Langston Hughes gained international attention and acclaim in nearly every genre of writing. While scholars and general readers have enjoyed relatively easy access to most of his writings, Hughes's work in one genre "the essay" has gone largely unnoticed. From his radical pieces praising revolutionary socialist ideology in the 1930s to the more conservative, previously unpublished "Black Writers in a Troubled World," which he wrote a year before his death, Hughes used the essay form as a vehicle through which to comment on the contemporary issues he found most pressing at various stages of his career.

Hughes generated some of his most powerful critiques of economic and racial exploitation and oppression through his masterful essays. It was the essay as a literary form that allowed Hughes to document the essential contributions made by African Americans to literature, music, film, and theater, and to chronicle the immense difficulties black artists faced in gaining recognition, fair remuneration, and professional advancement for these contributions. Finally, it was in certain essays that Hughes most fully represented the unique and endearing persona of the blues-poet-in-exile.

Many of the essays and other pieces of short nonfiction included in this volume have long been out of print and will be new to most readers. Through them, Langston Hughes reaffirmed a belief in the political potential of African American writers that remained consistent throughout his forty-six-year professional writing career: "Ours is a social as well as a literary responsibility." Such a belief resounds everywhere in this volume "a true testament of a man committed to the capabilities of language to generate social awareness and, ultimately, to compel social change."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780826213945
  • Publisher: University of Missouri Press
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Series: Collected Works of Langston Hughes Series, #9
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 648
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Christopher C. De Santis is Associate Professor of American and African American Literature at Illinois State University in Normal. He is also the editor of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 10, Fight for Freedom and Other Writings on Civil Rights.

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Read an Excerpt

The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Volume 9

Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs

University of Missouri Press

Copyright © 2002 Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0826213944

Chapter One

Essays, 1921-1929

The Virgin of Guadalupe," Crisis 23 (December 1921): 77

After the coming of the Spaniards, who brought priests and missionaries, as well as soldiers to conquer Mexico, most of the subdued Indians were converted to the faith of the Catholics. The ancient Indian temples to barbaric gods were torn down by the Europeans who built new Christian churches in their stead. Thus it came about that the brown men learned to worship the saints and idols brought by the invaders and so forgot their old gods.

One day a pious follower of the Spaniards' faith, Juan Diego by name, was returning from mass across the hill of Guadalupe, when suddenly a veiled figure, all light and beauty, appeared before him. The poor Indian was much astonished and filled with surprise when the woman spoke to him and commanded in a soft voice that he go to the bishop and tell His Excellence to construct a church on the hill where the figure was standing. This Juan did, or attempted to do, but the bishop's servants, thinking the man a common ignorant Indian, would not give him admission to the house, so Juan Diego went back.

For a second time the vision appeared before him, issuing the same command in herbeautiful voice, so the Indian returned in search of the bishop. Each time, however, he was refused an entry but the vision told him to persevere. Finally, after many days, he was admitted and the old father asked him what he wished. When Juan Diego told of the beautiful spirit and her message, the bishop could not believe such a tale and thought perhaps that the poor fellow was demented. At last he told the Indian that he would have to bring some sign or token of proof in support of his strange words.

Once more the man returned to the hill and there at its foot the bright vision reappeared. Hearing the message that the bishop had sent, she said, "Pluck those flowers there at your feet." But Juan Diego, standing on the bare and rocky earth, asked, "what flowers?" Then suddenly looking down he saw the ground covered with white blossoms which he began to pick and with which he filled his small woven tilma or mantle, used to wrap about his shoulders on cold mornings.

Then he went to the bishop and said, "Here is your sign." Opening the mantle the white flowers rolled out at their feet. The bishop looked, but still more marvellous than the flowers, the surprised priest saw, painted on the mantle where the blossoms had been, the figure of the Virgin surrounded by a halo of light. "This," he said, "is surely the proof." So they proceeded to erect the church on the top of the hill. Later a magnificent cathedral was built at its foot where the tilma bearing the picture of the Virgin is preserved to this day above the altar and on the spot where the vision first appeared, a spring of water gushed forth and is now covered by a pretty shrine where people may stop to drink.

Once a year a great fiesta is held in honor of this patron saint of Mexico and many people come from far away to visit her. Any day when one cares to take a trip out to the stately church where she is housed near Mexico City, her faithful worshippers may be seen going on their knees the long distance from the outside door to the high altar carrying white candles in their hands, crawling up to place them before her-La Virgin de Guadalupe-whose name is known and loved by all Mexico.

"Ships, Sea and Africa: Random Impressions of a Sailor on His First Trip Down the West Coast of the Motherland," Crisis 26 (December 1923): 69-71

I. Senegal to the Congo

The East River ... The Battery half veiled in fog ... The Statue of Liberty dim to starboard as our ship glides past headed for the open sea ... Sandy Hook ... Grey green water ... Darkness ... In the lighted fo'c'sle sailors unpack sea bags ... We are off for five months to Africa.

Long days of sea and sun ... The last of June the mountains of the Azores float on the sky-line ... High volcanic islands rise sharply from the water ... We anchor in the harbor of Horta, a picture-book town ... Houses painted like toy Noah's arks, palm trees, nuns in flaring bonnets, oxen pulling wooden-wheeled carts, scores of brown-white children begging for cigarettes and pennies.

We unload all night ... The winches rattle, bags of wheat rise in the air, swing over and out, drop down into the harbor boats ... At dawn we sail.

The Canary Islands ... Teneriffe ... Las Palmas, a breath of Spain in a city of palms.

Tomorrow,-Dakar ... The Motherland.

Dawn ... The coast of Africa, long, low, bare and rocky, backed by a curtain of light and then a red sun that rises like a ball of fire.

The port of Dakar, Senegal ... The wharf crowded with black Muhammadans in billowing robes ... The strange costumes seen ... The thermometer at ninety ... Women in scant clothes ... Little naked children ... The fierce sun.

Portuguese Bissao, lost in a maze of islands ... The old Negro pilot who guides our ship ... The wild, fierce boatmen who take the mailbag.

Conakry from the sea ... Groves aflame with vermillion flowers ... White houses hidden in trees and foliage.

Freetown ... The hills of Sierra Leone ... The fine young Negro policemen and harbor officials ... Rain, all day rain.

The Ivory Coast ... The Gold Coast ... Towns with strange names, -Grand Bassam, Assinie, Accra, Lome, Cotonou ... No harbors, the ship anchors in the sea ... A sand-white, perfectly straight coast-line ... Towns hidden in deep coconut groves ... The soft boom of the surf on the beach.

The lagoon behind Grand Bassam ... Streets shaded with palm and almond trees ... French cafes ... Clean, delightful natives.

Secondee ... The market flashing with colors, the piles of fruit, the dark girls in bright bandannas, gay strips of cloth twined about their bodies ... The African princesses with gold coins in their hair.

The roar of the surf at Assinie ... Always the surf ... The surfboats with their crew of eight black naked paddlers, their superbly muscled bodies, damp with sea-spray, glistening in the sunshine.

Lagos, a fascinating, half-oriental town ... Indian bazaars ... Muhammadan traders ... Goats, dogs, pigs in the streets ... Life, movement, crowds, dashing horses, rich Negroes driving expensive cars, a harbor full of ships ... Seven days in port ... Shore leave and money for the crew whose pounds, like Villon's francs, go "tous aux tavernes et aux filles."

II. The Delta of the Niger

Port Harcourt up a jungle-walled river ... Ostriches walking in the streets ... The small, stark naked cane-bearer following his master ... The date-palms ... The boy with the bananas ... The little black girls with henna-dyed nails and bare feet ... The one with the Peruvian gold which she displays so proudly and guards so jealously ... The monkeys ... The young boy from the customs, brown with dreams in his eyes ... "America, is it a wonderful place?" ... The policeman whose salary is four pounds a month ... Rain, swift, cool rain.

Calabar among the hills ... The descent of the Bonny River in the late afternoon, the steamer keeping near to the left bank ... Impassable forests on either side ... Swampland of snakes and monkeys ... Yellow leaves like hidden stars ... Smoldering crimson blossoms ... The slender canoes of the wood-cutters ... The palm-like bushes ... Sunset ... The river, broken by islands, dividing into vast alleyways of water ... The little boats lost in the twilight-a twilight of violet merging to purple dusk ... The islands hidden in darkness ... The impossibility of reaching open sea ... We drop anchor for the night.

With pious homage to Father Neptune, we cross the Equator, the young sailors, according to ancient custom, being properly doused and shaved ... At night we run through a sea aglow with phosphorescent fire ... A million fallen stars foam in the wake of the ship and streaks of light move where fish swim near the surface.

Banana, the point of land that stretches into the sea at the mouth of the Congo ... Sailor's chanteys on deck-

"They sailed us down the Congo River, Blow, boy, boys! Blow!"

The ninety mile ascent to Boma and Matadi ... Forests, but not so thick or tropical as those of the Niger ... Then wide, arid plains, parched palms, dry yellow grass ... Boma ... The river narrows, runs swiftly between high hills, fantastic, bare ... A strong and dangerous current ... A sudden, broad, canon-like curve and the white houses of Matadi rise before us ... A town of hills ... A busy wharf piled with drums of palm oil ... Native villages scattered about, each on its own highland ... Streets bordered by mango trees ... The dirtiest, saddest lot of Negro workers seen in Africa ... Black soldiers with bayoneted guns pacing the docks ... Evening ... The copper-gold of the Congo sunset ... Bluegreen twilight ... The hot, heavy African night studded with stars.

"The Fascination of Cities," Crisis 31.3 (January 1926): 138-40

The First City

Dawn is sodden, grey. The stubble of wheat fields, the hills and bluffs of the Kansas River. The clack, clack, clack of the train running between long lines of freight cars, the railroad yards. "Union Station!...." Kansas City!"

The bellowing voice of the brakesman, a jar and a curve, houses high on a bluff, a tiny street car running way up there. The old station in the bottoms. Hustle, hurry. "Cab, mom, cab?" -This way to the street cars-. "Bus to your hotel! Take your baggage!" Mother holds me tightly by the hand. I am five years old. I am in the city for the first time.

I remember well. Night. My uncle's house. Spare ribs and corn and sweet potatoes and a can of beer. A gala occasion. The Williams and Walker company in town. The greatest colored show in the world is in town.

"O Bon Bon Buddie, "My chocolate drop, "My chocolate drop "Dat's me!"

George Walker, the beautiful brown girls, the crowded theatre, the applause, the laughter. I am five years old. The cool night air, the autos, the streets, the lights, the people affect me. "Look, mother! Oh, mother, look!" The fascination of cities seizes me, burning like a fever in the blood. "I don't want to leave this city, mamma. When I get to be a big man, I am going to live forever in this city!"


I am fourteen. I work in a hat store in the loop. The crush of the city is all about me. The vast, ugly, brutal, monotonous city, checker-boarded, hard. The L trains circle in a crazy loop. The L trains rattle and roar behind Wabash Avenue, shaking the houses, houses, houses on Wabash Avenue. The tiny second-story room I sleep in has a window opening onto the tracks of the L trains. The red and green lights of the passing cars whiz and flash in my sleep, dreams. The approaching dull rumble, the loud rattle and roar fading to the dying dull rumble, punctuate my hours of sleep. I take long rides on the L trains, Evanston, Oak Park, Englewood. I cover the monotonous miles of Chicago delivering hats. On Sundays I walk on State Street,-glittering Broadway of the Black Belt. Lighted theatre fronts. The Whitman Sisters at the Grand. The first colored movie ever shown. Street stands. "Sweet watermillion right here!" The fish sandwich man. The girls with too much powder, beckoning eyes, red, red lips. "You love me, don't you, honey!.... Ah, Cora, leave him alone. He's only a kid." Crap games in the vacant lots. "Cheese it, the cop!" The medicine man, the corner preacher. The dark, throbbing life of the streets.

Long afternoons on the lake shore, the Ghetto's strange old Jews, the foreign quarters, Polish, Irish, until-

"We don't 'low no niggers in this street."

"I'm not bothering you."

"Makes no difference. We don't 'low no niggers in this street." And the lanky boy stuns me with a blow to the jaw. A shrill whistle brings the gang. Blows and counter-blows, oaths and kicks. We butt and fight and scratch. I would run but someone knocks my cap on the ground. My old dirty cap on the ground. I'll get my cap. It becomes life, death, God, everything,-my cap.

"Let me get my cap! Fight fair, you poor white cowards! Ganging a fellow like this!" We sway and grunt and pant, a mass of fists, arms, bodies. I grab someone's legs, kick, shove, reach down, grab my cap, turn, push, run. Escape! A whizzing of stones. Street corner, head out, body safe.

"Bastards!" "Nigger!"

Chicago before the riots. Power and brutality, strength. Ugly, sprawling, mighty city.


I have come from far up in the mountains to the capital for this Feast-Sunday. It is the bull-ring in Mexico. Juan Luis de la Rosa, youngest and most graceful of Spanish matadors, places the banderillos. With one gay, paper-covered, sharp steel-pointed dart held high above his head in each hand, the young fighter, in a suit of silk and silver, moves in a circle about the angry bull. The animal paws the ground, bellows, rushes toward him. Quick as a flash, the hooked darts are fastened in his torn skin. The fighter leaps aside. The surprised bull roars, turns. The colored, cruel instruments of the fight decorate his bloody neck, making him seem like some garlanded festival animal ready for the sacrifice. It has been a perfect placement. "Bravo, los hombres!" The crowd goes mad. Hats, scarves, jeweled combs, fans are thrown in the arena at his feet as the young fighter receives the acclamations of his public.

The bull has killed four horses, goring them till their entrails spill on the ground. The bull has wounded one man. Now the youthful fighter, ready for the kill, receives his sword and cape. The vast crowd about the great ring is silent almost to the point of breathlessness. The supreme moment has arrived, the crisis in that savage drama, that old, old drama of youth against odds, youth against evil, death, the beast. The bull, tired by the exertions of the fight, stands still in the center of the arena, panting, but his stillness is pregnant with unused strength. Will he rush toward the young man, gore him through, lift him high on his horns as he did the bodies of the bleeding horses? Will the drama end in human death?

It is late afternoon and the quick, tropical darkness is approaching. Already dusk is gathered over the arena. Hurry, oh, hurry! The nervous stillness of the crowd is like a scream. The fighter advances slowly, his red cape before him, his sword held high. The bull paws the ground, seems to moan deeply, gathers his waning strength and rushes forward. The sword goes straight and deep into his neck. The fighter, in his suit of silk and silver, is lifted high in the air between the horns of the bull. He springs back. The mighty moment of the drama is over. The dying animal stops, takes one, two steps toward his human slayer, trembles, then slowly and in a manner of great state, like some ponderous animal god, topples down in the sand to death.

Already it is dark. The crowd, making for the exits, fills narrow steps, pushes in enclosed corridors. A great number of men and boys climb the high barrier into the arena and carry the young triumphant fighter off on their shoulders. I follow shouting, pushing with the rest, trying to get near, to touch this hero of the day and dusk. Through the dark stone arches of the plaza, through the toreadores' quarters, out to the waiting long powerful car with head-lights softly glowing, they carry him. In the car, with much cheering, they place the young matador. One of his friends throws a ring-cape of pale grey silk broidered in gold about him. The flash of a match shows me his face as he lights a cigarette,-a hard, sun-browned boy-face, scarred, shadowed. Tomorrow the newspapers will headline his name and in all the little bars and cafes, theatres and great restaurants of the capital, they will talk about him. The people will idolize him. The loveliest of courtesans will offer him their bodies, and the international news reels will flash his picture on the screen in Canton, China, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. He has fought the good fight and brought to a triumphant end the drama of youth against odds, youth against evil, death, the beast. He has played his part well in the afternoon's savage and primordial spectacle.


Excerpted from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Volume 9 Copyright © 2002 by Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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