- Anthologizing Africa:Langston Hughes and His Correspondents
The fascination of these two texts lies in the coming to light of a probably unsuspected transatlantic link between the United States and emergent independent Africa in the 1950s-60s. Thanks principally to the Beinecke Library at Yale and other well-preserved American holdings, researchers like David Chioni Moore and Shane Graham have been enabled to uncover and make accessible much of the background documentation of a general effort that goes far beyond the revelation of biographical minutiae and chit-chat: this was the Hughes-led project simply to put African literature in general, as he saw it, on the postwar English-language map worldwide.
Possibly known is that Hughes's sprawling effort, stretching over the last fifteen years of his industrious life (1902-1967), resulted in two keynote anthologies: An African Treasury of 1960 (which with his introduction included his selection of articles, essays, stories, and poems), and then Poems from Black Africa of 1963 (with his own foreword and items ranging from traditional oral pieces in English translation through to samples from the written English, French, and Portuguese). These pioneering assemblies had been beaten to it, however, by Cullen Young's African New Writing of 1947, from which Hughes in the usual anthologizer's cannibalistic fashion took up Mabel Dove-Danquah of Ghana ("Anticipation") and the prolific Cyprian Ekwensi. Soon enough Ulli Beier in turn would lift over many of Hughes's contributors for his Black Orpheus anthology of 1964, and so the compiling instinct would proliferate as African literature as a category may be said to have arrived in the West.
Hughes's first anthology, as appears from these extraordinary backstage records, occupied him from his base in New York City particularly through [End Page 1] the 1950s. Once word had gotten round that the renowned Negro guru, surely America's most famous black literary figure abroad, was inviting contributions from African aspirants, the material fairly poured in. At one point Hughes mentions a backlog of some 300 letters to be replied to, with secretaries and typists having to be paid to cope with the phenomenon out of his hand-to-mouth earnings. Clearly a generous-spirited person, and an astute entrepreneur, as we may relish, he still found the late-night energy—between lecture tours, writing musical plays, newspaper column, and family commitments, launches, and generally having to keep some fifty books in the public eye—to respond at length to the particular correspondents he thus made. They included Peter Abrahams, the then Ezekiel (later Es'kia) Mphahlele, William Bloke Modisane, and particularly the younger Richard Rive and Peter Clarke. Each received responses, often chivvying, typed out with the carbons kept, dispatched either by air or by boat, while nowadays such a workload would be reduced to a few repetitive emails. Also he kept and stored those irreplaceable missives he received from all and sundry, often blatantly pleading for assistance, taking the trouble in response to dispose of remaindered copies of his own works, LP records, even parcels of second-hand clothing where appropriate. Truly he came across as a great-hearted fellow, though obliquely he was also of course self-memorializing; those whom he favored would repay in due course readily enough with suitable tributes.
As Shane Graham makes clear in his introduction to the Palgrave Macmillan volume, which he has edited together with John Walters, there had to be an initiating point to Hughes's vast sprawl of on-the-side collecting activity. Certainly the spur was the query in the opening letter of April 1953, as to whether or not Hughes would be a judge of the forthcoming short story competition sponsored by the Johannesburg-based Drum magazine. This came from a South Africa that was rapidly becoming notorious for its segregationist policies and which he had never...