- The Bessie Head—Langston Hughes Correspondence, 1960–1961
The following narrative, consisting of a scholarly introduction and then the reproduction of eight letters and one photograph, opens a new window onto the life and career of the Botswana writer Bessie Head (1937–1986), known for her psychologically charged portraits of Southern African society. Though South African by birth, Head fled to Botswana in 1964 at age twenty-six and lived there for the rest of her life. Essentially all of Bessie Head’s mature published writings, and all of what she is famed for, are set in Botswana, most notably her adopted rural hometown of Serowe. Yet all of her writings were profoundly inflected by her damaging upbringing in a brutally racialized South Africa, which accorded mixed-race persons such as Head a particularly fraught social and psychological status.
As Head’s major biographer Gillian Stead Eilersen has noted, little paper documentation other than some published magazine and newspaper journalism exists for Head’s life prior to 1963, when friends and colleagues began to preserve her correspondence.1 The eight letters published here push back the horizon of access to Bessie Head’s private thoughts by three years, to October 1960, when as a young, single, struggling Cape Town writer, she initiated correspondence with the great African American poet Langston Hughes (1902–1967), who was thirty-five years her senior. It is hoped that these letters, and the scholarly introduction that precedes them, will shed valuable light onto this important Botswana writer, and more broadly onto global interactions in the Black Atlantic world.
I. Introduction to the Langston Hughes—Bessie Head Correspondence of 1960–1961
Langston Hughes’s affinity for and interest in Africa is well known, and dates at least from age eighteen, when, while traveling to Mexico to visit his father the summer after his high school graduation, he penned what would become his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”2 This landmark African American text invoked not only the Mississippi but also the Congo, the Nile, and (oddly) the Euphrates in describing the antiquity of Negro presence in the world. In a [End Page 1] tale told more fully elsewhere, after a subsequent unsatisfying freshman year at Columbia University in New York, Hughes then shipped out as a messboy on an aged freighter, the West Hesseltine, and traveled the African coast as far south as Angola at age twenty-one, in summer 1923. He wrote of the complexities of this experience in several venues as the years went by.3
For the most part, however, Langston Hughes’s engagement with Africa up until age fifty was largely textual and substantially a product of his imagination. As his poetic vision developed through the 1920s and 1930s from a black-affirming cultural appreciation to a worker-affirming leftist political approach, Hughes frequently made reference to Africa and Africans in his work. Rather stereotyped though lovingly embraced representations of jungles and tom-toms predominated in the first phase, while vigorous verse portraits of subjugated black workers took precedence in the second. Hughes was a committed internationalist throughout his life, but most of his actual, physical travel and epistolary contact outside the US up to age fifty was not African: it was rather with Paris, Civil-War Spain, the francophone and hispanophone Caribbean, Russia and Soviet Central Asia, and more. One marker of his low African involvement was his assembly, with his long-time colleague Arna Bontemps, of the massive anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1949, which included verse by Negro American, white American, and many Caribbean authors, but just one item from an African writer: Aquah Laluah, a pen name for the Ghanaian/Sierra Leonean Gladys May Casely-Hayford. Notably, although the Négritude poets Césaire, Senghor, and Damas had been influenced by Hughes since the early 1930s, as late as August 1948, during Hughes’s assembly of Poetry of the Negro, the Howard University French professor Mercer Cook had to tell Hughes who Senghor was.
By 1952, however, Hughes struck out in a fresh direction, in part because he was at a temporary low. Eclipsed in fame in the US by...