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Biography 23.4 (2000) 670-689

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Multiple Passings and the Double Death of Langston Hughes

Juda Bennett

Desire to us
Was like a double death,
Swift dying
Of our mingled breath,
Of an unknown strange perfume
Between us quickly
In a naked

Langston Hughes, "Desire"

At the very beginning of his career and throughout most of his forty years of writing, Langston Hughes repeatedly returned to the theme of racial passing, exploring the subject in two autobiographies, several poems and short stories, a brief scene in his first novel, and at least one play. More than those writers who could easily pass for white--Jean Toomer and Walter White--and more than those writers who have become central to the growing study of passing literature--Nella Larsen and William Faulkner--Langston Hughes examines this figure through all the major genres, and more importantly, with an incredible range and inventiveness. In surveying the work, however, it becomes apparent that Hughes began to abandon the theme of racial passing just as he was beginning to explore the interrelated themes of homosexuality and homophobia. As Hughes moves to this "new" material, he can be found structuring it, perhaps as many authors do, upon his early work, with the more familiar drama of racial passing informing his approach to homosexuality. Perhaps less obvious are the ways that the early [End Page 670] representations of racial passing, including autobiographical accounts, may be read as "queer," or structured upon the concept of the closet.

This essay argues that Hughes's work on racial passing productively mediates and complicates current debates over Hughes's sexuality at the same time that it provokes a reconsideration of the prevailing notion of Hughes as an unsophisticated poet. These debates, which turn on simple choices of heterosexual/homosexual and good/bad, are surprisingly entwined. New Criticism's stricture to read the text without consideration of authorship or other "extrinsic" information has been exposed as ethnocentric--neither value free nor universal. The complexity of Hughes's work, for example, cannot be understood outside the context of jazz, Jim Crow laws, and homophobia. Similarly, Hughes's sexuality is just as important to the poetry as is the supposedly internal, "untainted" concern for irony. Unfortunately, biographers and scholars of Hughes have presented little more than a "distant," "childlike," "asexual," and "enigmatic" Hughes, who seems bereft of real passions, and unhelpful in providing context for the "queer" texts. 1

In searching for a way into Hughes's closet, I have turned to the poet's passing narratives, asking them to serve as models of reading. Resist closure, they tell us; definition is a fluid and provisional thing. Displaying a strikingly postmodern sensibility, these narratives speak directly to the concerns and anxieties of our times, employing various strategies for deconstructing simplistic notions of truth, knowledge, and identity. But these same passing narratives also argue that identity, despite its unstable and slippery nature, matters. It is this tension between the desire to fix and also the inclination to destabilize identity that finally provides the key to understanding the poet and his work.

Langston Hughes explored racial passing at a time when other authors, both black and white, were drawn to the subject. 2 Nella Larsen announced her interest directly in her first novel, Passing; Jessie Fauset could think of writing about little else; and Faulkner returned to the theme three times, in Light in August, Absalom, Absalom!, and Go Down Moses. Walter White, Fannie Hurst, Jean Toomer, Edna Ferber, George Schuyler, and Sinclair Lewis are just a few of the writers who made use of the passing theme, and many of them are featured prominently in current studies of racial passing. 3 Yet Hughes's passing literature remains surprisingly underexamined. With both a poem and a story entitled "Passing," and another story entitled "Who's Passing for Who?," his interest in this theme is far from hidden or buried. But Hughes appears mainly in the footnotes to Werner Sollors's [End Page 671] comprehensive Neither Black Nor White Yet Both, and none of the contributors to...