- Which Sin to Bear?: Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes by David E. Chinitz
In Which Sin to Bear?: Authenticity and Compromise in Langston Hughes, David E. Chinitz analyzes how Hughes sought to present an accurate and credible depiction of African Americans in his texts. Chinitz articulately states the purpose of the book in the Introduction: “The issues I treat include Hughes’s interventions in the shifting definition of ‘authentic blackness,’ his work toward a socially effective discourse of racial protest, his engagement with liberal politics, his lifelong ambivalence toward compromise, and the imprint of all these matters in texts ranging from his poetry and fiction to his non-fiction prose and even his Congressional testimony” (3–4). He succeeds in developing the primary topics that he lays out in his Introduction within the rest of the book due to his use of evidence, his astute analysis, and enlightening observations.
Chapter one, “Becoming Langston Hughes,” emphasizes influences upon Hughes’s literature. According to Chinitz, “For Harlem Renaissance intellectuals, the South represented indispensible cultural capital. On one’s relation to the South depended in good measure one’s authority to speak from the position of an authentic racial subject” (31). Chinitz contends that Hughes’s writing about that region of the U. S. prior to his first trip was not complex, and he uses “The South” as an example of a poem by Hughes which Chinitz contends lacks sophistication due to its conventional and stereotypical language (32-33). Chinitz states “On balance, the value of his southern experience accrued less to his creative imagination` than to his social awareness, his understanding of the possibilities of poetry, and his sense of himself as an organic intellectual” (39). Chinitz’s insightful comments here imply that Hughes did evolve into a more self-assured author as a result of exposure to that region of the United States (39).
Similarly, Chinitz continues his interpretation of Hughes’s texts within chapter two, “Producing Authentic Blackness.” He claims that “Hughes’s work implicitly urges a redefinition of African American authenticity as dynamic—as process rather than origin” (51). Additionally, he addresses Hughes’s relevance to more recent times. He points out that “Since 2007, the rise of Barack Obama in American politics has placed ‘authentic blackness’ repeatedly at the center of public debate. The question of whether candidate Obama was insufficiently black to appeal to African American voters was aired persistently during the primary and general election campaigns” (65). This comparison illustrates how adept Chinitz is at connecting Hughes to discourses on contemporary events, ideas, and topics.
Chapter three, “Authenticity in the Blues Poems,” considers the development of Langston Hughes’s technique during the poet’s life in texts such as The Weary Blues and Fine Clothes to the Jew (71–72). Chinitz also emphasizes how Langston Hughes negotiated the complexities of merging orality with written discourse (83). In chapter [End Page 214] four, “The Ethics of Compromise,” Chinitz also argues that Langston Hughes’s texts differed in emphasis, perspective, and content (96). He writes, “What, then, of Hughes’s move away from radical socialism in the late 1930s after almost a decade of leftist political activism and vocal revolutionism?” (96). Chinitz offers up the explanation that Hughes encountered obstacles that could have made the author vigilant about being able to continue writing. Chinitz writes: “Barred by his race from such lucrative fields as screenplay and radio-script writing, Hughes made a precarious living off his work. He had good reason to be wary of his reputation” (97).
Chinitz also address how attitudes about communism affected Hughes. In chapter five, “Simple Goes to Washington: Hughes and the McCarthy Committee,” Chinitz provides important historical contexts that illustrate that the impetus behind questioning Hughes about his ideology stemmed from the fear that texts by Hughes and others promoted communism. “To support of contention, McCarthy subpoenaed Hughes, Dashiell Hammett, and other writers in an effort to establish that their books were inappropriate presences in the overseas libraries” (111). In remarking that Hughes actually...