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The Russian Connection:
Interracialism as Queer Alliance in Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks
The blood of Pushkin
The Russian and the Negro
We will be united anew
In the Internationale.
—Julian Anissimov, "Kinship"
The gentlemen who wrote lovely books about
the defeat of the flesh and the triumph of the spirit [. . .]
will kindly come forward and
Speak about the Revolution—where flesh triumphs [. . .]
And the young by the hundreds of thousands are free
from hunger to grow and study and love and propagate, bodies [End Page 795]
and souls unchained without My Lord saying a commoner shall never
marry my daughter or the Rabbi crying cursed be the mating of Jews and
Gentiles or Kipling writing never the twain shall meet—
For the twain have met.
—Langston Hughes, "Letter to the Academy"
In June of 1932 Langston Hughes posted a telegram to his friend Louise Thomspon that read, "hold that boat 'cause to me it's an Ark" (qtd. in Rampersad 241). The boat in question was the Europa, bound for Berlin, and beyond that for Leningrad and Moscow. Scheduled on board were Thompson and the group of would-be actors she had organized to participate in a proposed, Soviet-funded film project titled Black and White. The image of an "ark" that Hughes proposes in his description of the steamship illustrates the fact that Hughes was eager to depart from US shores, excited about the artistic and social potential a Soviet adventure might bring him.
Hughes's sojourn to the Soviet Union, a trip that ended up covering a year, from June 1932 to June 1933, has been acknowledged in biographical accounts. Indicating the significance of this experience to Hughes's development as a writer, Faith Berry has described the Soviet period as "among the most productive of his literary career" (189). 1 While in the Soviet Union, Hughes produced poetry, essays, and fiction, including the poem "Letter to the Academy," the Soviet-published "A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia," and several of the short stories later published in the collection The Ways of White Folks, including "Cora Unashamed," "Slave on the Block," and "Poor Little Black Fellow." Despite Hughes's prolific output during his Soviet experience, however, the specific ramifications of this journey on his writing from the early thirties, particularly the stories that were written in Moscow and immediately following Hughes's return to the US in 1933, have remained virtually unexplored. 2
While in the Soviet Union, Hughes was exposed to the exhilarations of a society in progress, the reconstruction of the Soviet citizen, and the Leninist conception of internationalism. Combined, these interventions into the Russian social status quo created a heady atmosphere of possibility, of subjectivity under formation. The novyi Sovetskii chelovek (new Soviet person) augured a reconfiguration of the family, and Lenin's [End Page 796] internationalism promised interracial alliances in the name of global solidarity. As the poem "Kinship," written by Julian Anissimov and translated by Hughes, suggests, partnerships between "the Russian" and "the Negro" promised a shift from biologically determined links (that is, those fabricated through blood) to politically determined ones. 3 The idea of reconstructed kinships emerges with equal force in Hughes's Moscow-composed "Letter to the Academy" in which cross-racial unions beget a heretofore taboo meeting of the "twain." The influence of these interventions into conventional mappings of the familial and the racial can be traced throughout the prose pieces that Hughes produced during this period. The Soviet project provided an impetus for rethinking the intimacies associated with family and race as given demarcators of an inherent connection between group members and for skewing these naturalized categories. In their place, Hughes's stories offer the interracial and reconfigured kinship structures as alliances and formations through which to suggest a differently affiliated black masculine subjecthood. In these stories, many of which were collected into The Ways of White Folks, interracial...