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Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1225-1236

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"Don't Say Goodbye To The Porkpie Hat"
Langston Hughes, the Left, and the Black Arts Movement

James Smethurst

If one looks to uncover linkages between the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s and the earlier radicalisms of the 1930s and 1940s, the work of Langston Hughes as a writer, editor, and cultural catalyst during the 1950s and 1960s is a good place to start. Not only was his writing a crucial forerunner of Black Arts poetry, drama, essays, and short fiction, but Hughes tirelessly promoted the careers of the young (and sometimes not so young) militant black artists then, providing practical, moral, and emotional support and encouragement. At the same time, Hughes constructively criticized both the new black writing and the responses of some of the artists, activists, and intellectuals of his generation, reminding the younger artists of a long tradition of black radicalism in the arts while chiding older artists and intellectuals for their own cultural amnesia about their radical youth.

Of course, there is still a tendency to view Langston Hughes' relationship to political radicalism and the organized Left as growing more attenuated during the 1940s with a sharp break after his testimony before the McCarthy committee in 1953. In this view, Hughes' testimony before the committee, his subsequent reluctance to be publicly associated with Left causes, and his failure to include explicitly Left poetry in his Selected Poems, is viewed with greater or lesser sympathy as a sort of opportunism. Similarly, his engagement with Black Power in The Panther and the Lash is seen by some critics as a careerist attempt to cash in on a new market. 1

While these views have a certain power, Hughes maintained a considerable connection with the Left through the Cold War era and was, like Margaret Burroughs, John O. Killens, Ishmael Flory, Dudley Randall, Ernest Kaiser, Esther Cooper Jackson, Alice Childress, Louise Thompson Patterson, William Patterson, and John Henrik Clarke, a crucial bridge between the radicalisms of the 1930s and 1940s and the Black Arts activists of the 1960s and 1970s. In fact, Hughes' political evasiveness and circumlocution, especially outside of the African-American community, typified African-American radicals, and U.S. leftists generally, during the Cold War era—and beyond. Hughes' well-known and well-documented generosity toward and promotion of younger black writers had a political component that was rooted in the African-American Left stance that Hughes had developed over the previous four decades. [End Page 1225]

"something underneath like a—": Hughes and the Left During the McCarthy Era

The notion that Hughes' work during the 1950s was marked by a political quietude has been overstated. Hughes' "Simple" stories published in the 1950s in particular engage the Cold War from a Left perspective, both directly and more obliquely. For example, among the many texts, events, cultural artifacts, and Harlem political, cultural, and religious figures that Hughes references in the story "Temptation," Jesse B. Semple's apparently goofy take on Genesis, is the 1946 anti-nuclear weapons gospel song, "Atom and Evil" by the Golden Gate Quartet, a fixture of Popular Front cultural events.

"Temptation" also directly and indirectly invokes the fools and clowns of Shakespeare, particularly the gravedigger-clowns of Hamlet and their comments on Adam. (A connection that was further drawn in a militant "Simple's Soliloquy from 'Hamlet'" which Hughes sent as a typescript to old friend and Communist Party activist Louise Thompson Patterson in 1961.) 2 Like Shakespeare's clowns and fools, Simple's associative, stream of apparently unconsciousness verbal riffing frequently makes disturbing sense in the context of political and cultural politics during the high Cold War, slipping from "apple" to "atom" in his account of temptation and fall. Of course, Simple could often be more direct. Even after his experience before the McCarthy committee, Hughes continued to lampoon the anti-Communist investigators, as in the story, "The New Dozens," collected in the 1957 Simple Stakes a Claim, where Simple asserts that white people have created...


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