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Callaloo 25.4 (2002) 1207-1223



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Africa/America
Fragmentation and Diaspora in the Work of Langston Hughes

Jeff Westover


The concept of America is multifaceted in the work of Langston Hughes. In one respect, America's political self-definitions provide the poet with the basis for challenging the status quo and demanding change from the government that supports it. As James Presley puts it, "for Hughes the American Dream . . . is the raison d'être of this nation" (380). When writing from this perspective, Hughes draws on the ideas behind the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the Bill of Rights in order to criticize racial injustice in both domestic and international arenas. Lloyd Brown makes this argument, writing that

the majority culture's dream of a progressive society based on individual fulfillment and social harmony . . . has created its own inevitable legacy—that is, the Black American Dream of realizing those dreams and ideals that have been written down for white folks. (17)

Brown develops this argument in the context of his discussion of "Harlem" and other "Dream-poems" by Hughes, but it applies to many others as well. In a similar vein, Donald B. Gibson writes that "Hughes's commitment to the American ideal was deep . . . and abiding. He held on to it despite his acute awareness of the inequities of democracy, and he seemed to feel that in time justice would prevail, that the promises of the dream would be fulfilled. His early poem "I, Too" (The Weary Blues, 1926) is testimony to his faith" (45). Finally, as Anthony Dawahare argues, in "Let America Be America Again," "the true 'America' of the future will embody Jeffersonian political ideals: it will be a nation of, by, and for 'the people,' based on the notion of inalienable rights, and free from tyranny" (34).

From another perspective that Hughes also sometimes adopts, however, the United States is a place to be deeply criticized, if not rejected altogether. Hughes expresses his ambivalent attitudes toward his country through the repeated motifs of the Middle Passage, slavery, African American culture, and a diasporan "pan-Africanism." Hughes' work reveals an ongoing conflict between Africa-centered and African-American ideals. As Adam Lively points out, this conflict reflects the immediate context of the period in which Hughes began to write. "The 1920s," he observes, "saw the birth of the idea of blacks as the inside outsiders of modern life" (7). In line with this idea, the poet's reflections on his country and its history are double-tongued, [End Page 1207] exemplifying the double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois regarded as constitutive of African-American experience in general. As Raymond Smith puts it, Hughes "could affirm with equal assurance his two credos of identity: 'I am a Negro' and 'I, Too, Sing America.' But while affirming these polar commitments, Hughes was alienated from both of them. As a black man, he was aware that his race had never been granted full participation in the American dream" (270). The political inflections of Hughes' poetic personae, the communal "I" and "we" that he articulates in various ways, reveal the conflict and injustices of American history. In this essay, I reflect upon the fact that Hughes' poetic configurations of "I" and "we" sometimes also refer to a diasporan black community, rather than to the imagined community of the United States, a fact which indicates the complex nature of his national consciousness. 1 In particular, I suggest that it is from his dual vantage as a U.S. citizen and a member of the African diaspora that Hughes criticizes the failures of American democracy and challenges the United States to live up to its founding dream of freedom.

Paul Gilroy's emphasis in The Black Atlantic on the concept of double consciousness provides the point of departure for my analysis of Hughes' writing. Through his concept of a continuum of black culture on both sides of the Atlantic, he extends the idea of double consciousness to the entire African diaspora, arguing that modern blacks simultaneously live both inside and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 1-1223
Launched on MUSE
2002-11-15
Open Access
No
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