Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1115-1135
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Colored Dispatches From The Uzbek Border
Langston Hughes' Relevance, 1933-2002
David Chioni Moore
Like most all the contributors to this special Callaloo section commemorating the centennial of Langston Hughes, I began composing these words some time ago. More specifically I began writing before September 11, 2001, a significant date for this essay, since prior to that date it concerned the almost wholly unknown world of Central Asia. Then, of course, in September all that changed, and what also changed was the obligation of American writers—even those, like me, who focus mainly on the Afro-diasporic world—to better understand the Central Asian sphere. Interestingly, on December 17, 2001, at the height of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, the New York Times attempted to connect Central Asia with the Afro-diasporic world. On page B-8 it printed an article by Amy Waldman about American soldiers from New York City stationed in Afghanistan's turmoil. The article featured a photograph of two infantrymen, one African-American and the other Bangladeshi-American, smiling but with weapons at the ready, patrolling a U.S. airbase just north of Kabul. The Times' main and, I might add, ideological point was to describe how the streetwise multi-ethnic New York soldiers were actually quite comfortable in their new location. Indeed one of them is quoted as saying, "who knew I'd be here drinking tea with them?"
Of course, neither the Times writer nor the soldier knew that colored folks from New York City do have a history of drinking tea with Central Asians, a history that extends at least as far back as 1932 and Langston Hughes. Thus, in this essay I'll attempt not only to shed light on the travels and writings of Langston Hughes in Central Asia in the 1930s, but also to supplement the current Washington-inspired axis of suspicion with a Hughes-based bridge of understanding, in attending not only to Hughes and the 1930s, but also to the Central Asia of today, from what I'll call a Hughesian perspective. I'll begin by outlining Hughes' Central Asian sojourn, and will offer brief background on Central Asia itself. After discussing the two decades of writing Hughes did on Central Asia, I'll turn to the editorial challenges I face in assembling a volume of that writing for audiences today. I will touch briefly on six Hughes poems recently discovered to exist only in Uzbek translation, and finally I will recount key moments from my own recent travels on Hughes' trail, in the suddenly important Central Asia of today.
Those familiar with Langston Hughes' career will know that through the 1920s and the early 1930s the young poet steadily increased both his international and his left-wing commitments. By January 1, 1932, when he was not yet thirty, he had already traveled to four continents—unprecedented for an African-American writer of his [End Page 1115] time—and had been translated into at least four languages. Politically, the more he learned about the United States and the broader black Atlantic world, the more he shifted towards a radical account of that world's injustices. Then on March 10th of that year, while in California on the last leg of a national poetry-reading tour, Hughes received the following telegram from Louise Thompson, writing from New York:
JAMES FORD HERE FROM MOSCOW AUTHORIZED SECURE NEGROS TO MAKE RUSSIAN FILM ON NEGRO LIFE IN AMERICA NECESSARY RAISE FUNDS HERE FOR FARES AS RUSSIA LACKS VALUTA FOR SAME SPONSORING COMMITTEE WITH CHARLES WALKER ROSE MCCLENDON WALDO FRANK AND OTHERS BEING FORMED WILL YOU JOIN COMMITTEE ALSO WILL YOU CONSIDER GOING WITH GROUP TO LEAVE AROUND MAY FIRST WIRE COLLECT LETTER FOLLOWS.
Thompson's telegram had been prompted by the plans of the quasi-Soviet film agency Meschrabpom to make a film, "Black and White," that would depict the terrible conditions of African Americans in the USA and would therefore form a part of the Soviet Union's broader strategy to portray...