Letters from Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond

Letters from Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond

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Langston Hughes, one of America's greatest writers, was an innovator of jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance whose poems and plays resonate widely today. Accessible, personal, and inspirational, Hughes’s poems portray the African American community in struggle in the context of a turbulent modern United States and a rising black freedom movement. This indispensable volume of letters between Hughes and four leftist confidants sheds vivid light on his life and politics.

Letters from Langston begins in 1930 and ends shortly before his death in 1967, providing a window into a unique, self-created world where Hughes lived at ease. This distinctive volume collects the stories of Hughes and his friends in an era of uncertainty and reveals their visions of an idealized world—one without hunger, war, racism, and class oppression.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520960862
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 440
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Evelyn Louise Crawford, a retired arts administrator and consultant, and MaryLouise Patterson, a pediatrician in clinical practice, are the daughters of Langston Hughes’s cherished friends Evelyn Graves Crawford, Matt N. Crawford, Louise Thompson Patterson, and William L. Patterson. Hughes was a frequent guest in the homes of the two families and was like an uncle to to Evelyn Louise and MaryLouise.

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Letters from Langston

From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond

By Langston Hughes, Evelyn Louise Crawford, MaryLouise Patterson


Copyright © 2016 Evelyn Louise Crawford
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-96086-2


Thank You and God for "The Weary Blues"


Louise was in New York, and the letter she wrote to Langston, who was touring the South, on October 4, 1930, was largely her description of the ending of her relationship with her patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who had hired her a year earlier to serve as secretary to Langston and Zora Neale Hurston. Although both Langston and Hurston called Mason "Godmother," Louise insisted on using the more formal "Mrs. Mason."

Charlotte Mason, known for both her generosity and her tendency to patronize and manipulate beneficiaries of that generosity, had evidently decided that Louise was insufficiently appreciative of her patronage and summarily fired her. In an interview she gave years later for a documentary film on Langston, Louise explained the contrast between her reaction and Langston's to losing the support of Charlotte Mason: "We ... had the same patron, Mrs. Mason, and his reaction and my reaction were quite different. Langston was sick after that experience whereas I got mad."


[Letterhead: The American Interracial Seminar]

October 4, 1930

My dear Langston:

I tried to get Zora [Neale Hurston] by telephone but the line is disconnected and I haven't had time to run by there to see if she is back. However, this being Saturday and having the week end I shall try to get a lineup on her whereabouts.

Saw Mrs. Mason a week ago last Monday and it was short but excruciating. I said nothing and she said lots. I had failed utterly, all Negroes had failed utterly and she was through with us. It was all untrue and nothing I could say would make any difference. I offered to pay her for my desk and typewriter, and she said that I didn't mean it. So I shut up and let her do all the talking, altho she would throw in such remarks as there was no use to argue and no need to implicate anyone. I didn't quite understand what she was talking about for I said nothing and called no names. But it is all a damn mess and I had quite a bad time. Miss [Cornelia] Chapin threw in her rather nasty amens to everything Mrs. Mason said. I must confess that I don't know what it is all about, and after a very unhappy evening thinking over the whole thing I have tried to forget it — that is the humiliation of it.

The job is fine, but keeps me busy as hell. Don't you think you would like to come along on this trip of distinguished citizens. I think that I shall get to go, but it depends on our budget. Pray for me as I would have a grand time getting down to all those places I have never been.

Mother hasn't been so well. I am thinking of sending her to California if I can find the money somewhere. My cousin Mary [Savage] is here from Kentucky. She is a sweet kid and would make about two of me.

I am very much interested in your play and hope that things materialize as you would like. Do come back, though, as we miss you lots.

Always, Louise

[Marginal note above letterhead] I'll see about the other things you mention over the week end.

In October 1930 Louise was on the road in New England making public speeches about race relations on behalf of the American Interracial Seminar. In one of the speeches she gave before writing the following letter, she read from Langston's book of verse The Weary Blues.


[Letterhead: The American Interracial Seminar]

October 24, 1930

Lang dear:

I thank you and God for "The Weary Blues". What would poor speakers do when they have to talk on the RACE if it wasn't for you? Since my return from Boston I am thoroughly convinced that you are not only the salvation of the race but of race speakers, too.

I had a grand time up in Boston and didn't get nervous a bit. Those people are so dead and drab and I had the time of my young life prancing up and down on the platform in front of them. I felt like a new-born babe alongside their deadness. Mr. [Hubert C.] Herring and reports from Boston say I did well — but I was satisfied anyway. My only grief is that in my last minute haste of making trains I left my copy of "The Weary Blues" on the ticket window — now what will I do?

I didn't know whether or not you would see the enclosed review from The New Freeman. When are you coming home? I miss you a lot. Bruce [Nugent] gives me splendid reports of you down there. How about the play? I'll be glad to do all I can for you. What's the latest news of Zora [Neale Hurston]? No one in New York seems to have seen her.

Do hurry home — you have been away quite long enough.

Hasta luego,


On January 16, 1931, Louise wrote Nebby about her new life in New York. Nebby's Christmas present to Louise had been a pair of pajamas. In return Louise sent her friend an issue of the radical journal New Masses. She had separated from her first husband, Harlem novelist and playwright Wallace Thurman, and was single in New York and deeply involved in Harlem's cultural and political life. Between the lines of news of family and friends, she confides that she is gradually finding a home in radical Left politics. She had joined the Friends of the Soviet Union and wanted Nebby to keep up with left-wing thinking as well. Although Louise did not join the Communist Party until 1933, she was already studying Marxism and traveling in a new, interracial circle of leftist friends. She was also struggling with her own "bourgeois" tendencies and was convinced that true change could only take place through revolutionary measures. Although she mocked the social norms of the Black middle class, she acknowledged her own deep ties to highly educated Black professionals. She was on her way to becoming Red, describing herself as "Pink."


Nebby darling:

Your letter this morning brought home to me with a start how long it had been since I have written and that that letter bringing to you my happiness over the gorgeous pajamas you sent me [^ hadn't been written]. How are you going to turn me into a good proletariat when I get such a luxurious garment? On my side I salved my conscience by sending you The New Masses. Don't you love those things Langston is doing? I have hopes, high hopes, that he will become our real revolutionary artist. He is now in the South and I had an amusing letter from him telling of some of his experiences in Dixie. I think that he is planning to come to Calif. in April, so you will have a chance to renew your acquaintanceship. Loren [Miller] is handling his engagements. Did Matt's group ever write him about coming to Oakland or Berkeley?

I share your sense of high speeding time. I don't know where the weeks go to — first it is Monday and then before I regain consciousness it is Saturday. And it is Saturday afternoon now. I came right home from work with the avowed intention of writing you first of all, and if I can hold out, dash off a few other notes. Mother and Sue [Bailey Thurman] are down town, so the house is quiet and I am taking advantage of it. It is hard to get time to one's self. In spite of good intentions you get caught with several engagements during the week, and when a free night comes I generally am glad to pile into bed early. And now that I am getting more and more drawn into revolutionary activities I find my weeks very crowded. I am trying to find a place for myself now, as long as I have to work with bourgeois forces, in which I can do something to help the worker's cause along. I have joined the Friends of the Soviet Union, which of course isn't a dangerous thing to do and yet, thru which I hope to interest others, first in Russia and then in the struggle in America. There are also some other plans afoot wherein I may be able to work sub rosa. I have to do it, Nebba. Having studied something of Marxian theory, and finding it a philosophy which I can accept, makes my position more contradictory and difficult. One gets impatient of halfway measures — the hypocrisy of social reform — the ever increasing misery of the mass of people. I can understand your disgust with the Hawaiian affair. We have followed it closely here and have to acknowledge the spread of the old American custom. Even here the daily press has fallen into line and only such publications as The New Republic have recognized that a crime has been committed — and that that crime is MURDER, not rape. You might show the issue of January 20 to your fellow workers. Although I doubt that it will do any good. They have drunk too deeply of the poison of race chauvinism.

And I agree with you about the new Alexander Dumas club. I had read of it in the San Francisco SPOKESMAN. It's just the same old philanthropy, and the same diverting of Negroes from the seat of their troubles. I have thrown the whole idea of "Negro art" over board, not that I think that art hasn't a place in life, but that this new fetish of "Negro art" is a lot of hooey. There ain't no sich.

I don't know why we all fell so hard for the thing. Of course I can understand some who have feathered their nests through it, but the rest of us just let ourselves be made asses of — that's all. Having suffered once under the cruel sting of white philanthropy, all I can say is "Never again!" It is so devitalizing — to bow down and worship before a god that is helping to keep us enslaved. And no matter how nice these people may be, it is always patronage, nothing more and nothing less.

It seems very strange to me sometimes, I find that many things I used to enjoy no longer appeal to me at all. I went to one dance during the holidays — a formal sorority affair — and found it particularly odious. The people looked so dull and stupid and artificial in their "dress-up" clothes — and the whole thing was unbearably dull to me. Seeking new revolutionary companions became a necessity, for aside from Marion [Smith] and Sue and a few others I found myself out of harmony with others. And I find these new friends particularly stimulating. They are studying all the time; they are aware of the world in which they live; and above all they have the guts to try to do something about it (which I cannot lay claim to as yet). And then I find the study of Marx, dialectic materialism and the like so fascinating. I know you have heard me rave before, but really this time, Nebby, I think it is real and I feel quite happy about it. I think that that is one of the things that drew me away from Joe completely, and will make it impossible for me to be drawn to anyone except one who is traveling along the same path.

And the march of events is increasing its tempo so rapidly from day to day that I found myself wondering as the new year came in just what may happen before it runs its course. I know that my course won't be easy — I am saturated in bourgeois ideology and some of it is hard to get away from. I feel the necessity of maintaining a measure of economic security. But beside the march of world events my own seems very insignificant. With war a constant threat, with the poverty of the people on the constant increase, with the breakdown in our own government, municipal government particularly, a reality, and with revolution hovering in Germany, the Orient and elsewhere, one cannot possibly predict for the year. I don't imagine I will be going to Mexico this summer. First, the Committee is particularly hard hit now — the Caribbean Seminar begins next Saturday with a fifth of last year's membership. The Mexican Seminar may share the same fate. Then with the new work I am doing I shall probably remain right here in New York. Aside from seeing you again, I would will it so, too, for I would not care to go to Mexico again with this good will crowd of Americans. In fact I think my days are numbered in this sort of thing but I don't see any other out as yet.

Sue came home full of plans for her coming nuptials and new life. She will marry probably the end of May at her conference in North Carolina. Howard [Thurman] is in California at this time and I told him to look you up, but I suspect he didn't find time to do it. He gave some lectures at the University of California as well as in other schools on the Coast. They plan to move to Washington during the summer, and he will be at Howard University beginning next fall. The engagement is no secret now, so you can tell anyone that Sue is going to marry Howard Thurman. Coincidence in name, isn't it?

Marion is still in school and wondering what she will do for the next year. She is in somewhat the same position as I am — necessitating certain economic security. And as with me, she finds there is so little she can do to provide that economic security with which she is in sympathy. I don't believe she is as far gone in communism as I am, but she is extremely sympathetic and the result is the same. One of her friends who recently returned to New York said to me that she had heard that Marion was becoming more radical these days. I answered that I hoped so — what else was there for her to do. I wrote an article on race relations which has been accepted by The Christian Century over the grave doubts of the editor that this was the thing to do, although he agreed with what I said. It isn't radical, according to a real radical, but I suspect will rain down upon my head the invectives of many dear kind souls that are "giving their lives" for the good of the race. I'll send you a copy for criticism when it comes out. Mr. [Hubert C.] Herring is always after me to write — but it is so hard as you say to stay within the bounds of respectable circles, that often I prefer to keep still.

I shall watch for the Brothers Karamazov. As I keep up so slightly with what is going on in the movie world I can't say whether it has been here or not. I do want to see Arrowsmith as I have heard that it is very excellent. I saw The Five Year Plan when it was here. The only play I have seen recently was "1931" — a play on unemployment which was very good but lasted exactly nine days — it was too realistic for Broadway's taste. Right now Never No Morehas claimed quite a bit of public applause — a story of a lynching with Rose McClendon. I was invited to go see it last week but refused as I felt that I just didn't want to sit through such a grueling ordeal. I want to see Mourning Becomes Electra and Of Thee I Sing if I can ever find the money. I do wish it were going to be possible for us to be together this summer. I should like to go off to some isolated place for the summer with no diversions but sports and reading and studying. Sue is rooting for me to go to Russia in the fall, but it is scarcely a feasible idea. By no stretch of the imagination can I see how it could be done.

Mother will be writing you in her time — you know how she is about writing — but meanwhile she told me to thank you and Matt and convey her love to you for your constant thoughtfulness for her. We had a pleasant Christmas. Katherine [Jenkins], George [Sample], Marion and I gave Mother a radio for Christmas. We had a family dinner, Alta [Douglas] came over, and Mother seemed to enjoy herself very much. But as usual, during these holidays, we wished for you. I have found the clippings you sent quite useful, as well as interesting. I don't always use everything I get in just for the News Service. I keep my material filed and classified and it is used as source material for articles and the like. Many thanks, dear, for doing this for me.

Well, if I am to write anyone else this afternoon I must stop. It is now nearly five o'clock and the folks will be home soon. I rather suspect they have gone to a show.

Love to you both — tell Matt I am so glad that things are getting better for him.

Always, Your Squeeze

Langston wrote the following letter from his mother's home in Cleveland, where he had gone to recuperate. The whole conflict with Charlotte Mason had made Langston physically ill, and the continuing debacle with Zora Neale Hurston kept him ill. Louise had recently been in Cleveland on Interracial Seminar work and had seen Russell and Rowena Jelliffe, whom both she and Langston knew personally. Hurston was well known for her ability to be intentionally, flamboyantly, and unreasonably outrageous, as Langston's letter describes. In 1931 Langston copyrighted Mule Bone, under both of their names, but by 1934 he had signed over all of his rights to the play to Hurston.


Excerpted from Letters from Langston by Langston Hughes, Evelyn Louise Crawford, MaryLouise Patterson. Copyright © 2016 Evelyn Louise Crawford. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword by Robin D. G. Kelley

Introduction: The Poet, the Crawfords, and the Pattersons


1 • Wither White Philanthropy—Thank You and God for “The Weary Blues”: October 1930–January 1932
2 • Moscow Bound in Black and White: March 1932–February 1933
3 • Horror in Scottsboro, Alabama, and War in Spain: May 1933–November 1937
4 • A People’s Theatre in Harlem and Black Anti-Fascism on the Rise: January 1938–December 1939


5 • Early Political Repression: January 1940– November 1941
6 • World War II and Black Radical Organizing: June 1942–July 1944
7 • Ebb and Flow—To Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Back: July 1946– November 1949


8 • McCarthyism at Home, Independence Movements Abroad: July 1950–December 1959
9 • Civil Rights, Black Arts, and the People’s Poet: February 1961–August 1966

Glossary Personae

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