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  • Insurgent HughesNegotiating Multiple Narratives Digitally
  • Letitia Guran (bio)

[U]nfortunately, I was born poor—and colored—and almost all the prettiest roses I have seen have been in rich white people's yards—not in mine. That is why I cannot write exclusively about roses and moonlight—for sometimes in the moonlight my brothers see a fiery cross and a circle of Klansmen's hoods. Sometimes in the moonlight a dark body swings from a lynching tree—but for his funeral there are no roses.

—Langston Hughes ("My" 212)

Digital Annotation: Piercing the Wall between the Canon and the Archive

When I decided to teach Langston's Hughes memoir I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956) using digital annotation and geographic information system (GIS) referencing as part of my African American male writers class, I expected that by closely engaging with canonical and archival texts, my students would become versed in distilling the strategies of ideological and racial mediation that Hughes had to employ in this memoir, written at the height of McCarthyism, as well as in many of his fictional texts.1 The position of negotiator that he embraced while writing the memoir is a central aspect of Hughes's work inasmuch as it reflects his constant efforts to mediate problems of identity and ethics that he persistently faced as an African American professional writer and intellectual.2 The issue was also pertinent to other modern African American writers in the course and to modern fictional and autobiographical texts subjected to censorship and self-censorship during the twentieth century.

Since the American literary canon has often positioned Hughes as the poet of the more palatable "I, Too" (1926), I approach his memoir as an example of a profound yet subtle form of insurgency to flesh out the long-debated rebellious dimensions of his fictional and nonfictional works.3 I used the epigraph above to start my class and to point out that the controversy over Hughes's insurgency [End Page 136] originated in the expectation that patrons, such as Charlotte Mason, had in the late 1920s that Hughes write about innocuous themes.4 Yet, as many Hughes scholars have pointed out, at least since the early 1930s, the writer forcefully engaged with the unsolved issues of racism in American society, even though in so doing he "had to rely on his dexterity as a mediator among competing [ideological] positions in order to preserve his art, his integrity, and his unique status as the literary voice of ordinary African Americans" (Chinitz xi).5 The dialogic self-reading and consequent rewriting of parts of Hughes's A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1934), a Soviet-published pamphlet little-known in the United States until the early 2000s, into the autobiographical narrative of I Wonder is a compelling example of Hughes's ability to negotiate seemingly irreconcilable ideological positions.6

What to some disenchanted left-wing commentators of the 1950s may have looked like a watered-down protest was a recalibration strategy during McCarthyism, an anti-racist protest crafted as rhetoric challenging the virulent anti-Soviet American position during the 1950s. In support of this perspective, I envisioned that a digital component of the course would not only allow students to visualize the geographical layout of the writer's peregrinations but also expose them to Hughes's sophisticated dialogue across racial and ideological lines, to his ingenious strategies of dialogic self-reading and rewriting, and in so doing equip them with the tools to decide whether his insurgency still resonated with them. For students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the largest historically black college or university (HBCU) in the nation, who were already familiar with and embraced Hughes as both a canonical and an insurgent writer, this class created the opportunity to delve into the historical context of Hughes's controversial engagement with Soviet-inspired communism, which has left a lasting imprint on his reception as an insurgent writer.

The advantage of tackling broad concepts such as "insurgent writer" and "controversial communist allegiances" with a digital approach was that students could closely engage both Hughes's 1956 canonical account of the trip to the Soviet...


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pp. 136-163
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