Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1189-1205
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Modernism In The Black Diaspora
Langston Hughes and the Broken Cubes of Picasso
In the spring of 1934, Langston Hughes published a poem called "Cubes" in the New Masses, the premier literary journal of the American anti-capitalist Left. Hughes had recently returned home from a year spent in the Soviet Union and, at the time of the poem's publication, he was at the height of his commitment to the revolutionary socialist movement. He was also thinking with particular intensity about the relationship between the expansion of capitalism and the spread of a racially based European imperialism. Like many of Hughes' poems from the mid-1930s, "Cubes" is centrally concerned with this connection between capitalism and empire—with the global system that had, over several centuries, produced the African diaspora. Within the context of these political concerns, "Cubes" offers a revelatory exploration of the international aesthetic transformation that we have come to call modernism. The poem is at once an innovative modernist experiment and a powerful critique of modernism from a black diasporic perspective. "Cubes" suggests that the revolutionary aesthetic practices of the early 20th century were symptomatic expressions of an expanding system of racial and economic exploitation. But the poem demonstrates that these practices could also provide artists in the African diaspora with an indispensable means of understanding, and thereby resisting, that system of exploitation. Before developing this argument, I want to contextualize my reading by describing briefly some of the idiosyncrasies of the scholarship on Langston Hughes and U.S. modernism. As we'll see, this history tells us important things about the ways in which this literary field has been structured—and how a reading of "Cubes" can alter our understanding of modernism itself.
As far as I know, "Cubes" has never been written about: it has been ignored equally by Hughes scholars and by students of modernism. The poem's neglect reflects the peculiar history of U.S. scholarship about the artistic revolutions of the early 20th century. As critics now widely recognize, modernism was canonized in the United States during the Cold War in ways that were politically narrow and racially exclusionary. When an influential version of the movement was consolidated in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars generally assumed that African Americans had not contributed to its development. 1 This racially exclusionary view was so entrenched that, when African-American literary studies blossomed in the 1960s, most students of black culture accepted the notion that modernism's formal practices and social concerns were largely alien to black writers of the early 20th century. Indeed, they frequently defined the distinctive features of African-American culture in explicit opposition to [End Page 1189] an artistic movement that was presumed to be inherently racist and primitivist. 2 Into the 1980s, the scholarship on Langston Hughes generally reflected these oppositions. Those critics who rightly celebrated Hughes as a writer working in the black vernacular tended to assume that his commitment to the idioms of black working-class speech and to the popular musical forms of jazz and the blues must place him outside the modernist tradition. 3 Similarly, the relatively small number of scholars who acknowledged and celebrated Hughes' socialist politics generally assumed that the poet's radicalism put him at odds with a literary tradition understood to be apolitical or actively conservative. 4 In this context, critics inevitably had difficulty making sense of a poem like "Cubes"—a poem that clearly reflects Hughes' militantly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist sensibility but that also stands as a manifesto of black modernism.
In more recent years, an emergent "new modernism studies" has expanded and diversified our understanding of this complex literary movement, dissolving some of the misconceptions that prevented critics from grasping the modernism of writers such as Langston Hughes. This revisionary scholarship has had a number of goals, but canon expansion has been the most central. Critics have sought to explore the meanings and uses of modernism for women writers, for working-class authors and writers on...