- The Transnational Frequency of Radio Connectivity in Langston Hughes's 1940s Poetics
Hello, Jamaica! Hello, Haiti! Hello, Cuba! Hello, Panama! Hello, St. Kitts! Hello, Bahamas!All you islands and all you landsThat rim the sun-warmed Caribbean!Hello! Hello! Hello! Hello! I, Harlem, Speak to you!
I, Harlem, Island, too.Langston Hughes, "Broadcast to the West Indies" (1943)
The sound-scapes of early twentieth-century Harlem are alive in the poetry of Langston Hughes. Their vernacular speech, blues, jazz, and bebop rhythms give his work a distinct sense of place. Hughes's Harlem is typically interpreted as a symbol of U.S. black cultural nationalism. However, examining his later poetry from the 1940s reveals how he approaches the urban community from a transnational perspective. This is demonstrated by the epigraph from "Broadcast to the West Indies," published on August 14, 1943, in the People's Voice, a leftist African American newspaper. In this poem, rather than represent the rhythms and sounds from within the neighborhood, Hughes turns the place [End Page 265] of Harlem into a collective voice that makes a call of solidarity to the West Indies. The poetic persona of Harlem insists that it is an "island, too" and that the Caribbean islands should recognize Harlem as such. Composed in the style of an imaginary radio broadcast, the poem reflects the growth of black diasporic community during World War II, spurred by an increase in the transnational flow of people and ideas often facilitated by the radio. By invoking Harlem as an optimistic voice, Hughes constructs an implicit contrast between this hopeful persona and the harsh realities and racial conflicts in Harlem during the Second World War, culminating in the 1943 riots that broke out on August 1st, just two weeks prior to the publication of this poem.
On August 1st, 1943, an African American woman named Margie Polite acted as a catalyst for a massive riot in Harlem. As she was being arrested by a white police officer for disorderly conduct, a black soldier intervened to protect her and was shot by the officer. She is alleged to have run out into the streets screaming that her protector had been murdered. Due to growing resentment over the mistreatment of African American servicemen during WWII, Polite's accusations immediately sparked anger.1 The soldier actually managed to survive, but her screams inspired twelve hours of protesting, rioting, and looting that resulted in six deaths, five-hundred arrests, over four hundred injuries, and approximately five million dollars in property damage, primarily to white owned businesses in Harlem.2 One gets a sense of the magnitude of the riots when confronted with the large number of law enforcement officials it took to restore order, which included eight thousand New York State Guard troops and close to seven thousand city police officers as well as civilian volunteers.3 While the majority of the black middle class frowned on the riots because they felt that the actions of the rioters reflected badly on the race, Hughes admired the collective act of resistance. In fact, Margie Polite's call to her Harlem community and the radical responses that ensued are emblematic of the call to social action that Hughes desired to create through his poetry. In his poem "Ballad of Margie Polite" (1943), published in the black newspaper the Amsterdam News, several months after the riots, he celebrates her rebellious spirit and how her "cry spread over Harlem."4 In his essay "Down Under in Harlem," published a year after the riots in The New Republic, he defends the black working class residents and their struggle to survive despite the "permanent scarcity of quarters in Harlem."5 One must ask how Hughes's idealized transnational call of solidarity in "Broadcast to the West Indies" relates to his perspective on local politics in Harlem during this period.
"Broadcast to the West Indies" was not republished after its initial publication in The People's Voice in 1943 until Arnold Rampersad included it in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).6 Yet this rarely discussed 1940s newspaper poem encapsulates many of the goals of Hughes's socially committed...