“Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.” – Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967), “Cafe:3am.” Photo by Carl Van Vechten, February 1936.
Langston Hughes, who died fifty years ago today, was an American poet, writer, and activist, best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
Of his childhood in Kansas, Hughes later wrote: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome…Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”
Hughes’ signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in 1921; “The Weary Blues,” his first book of poems, was published in 1926. In 1930, “Not Without Laughter,” Hughes’ first novel, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature; he went on to publish “The Ways of White Folks,” two autobiographies, a history of the NAACP, and a number of children’s books, among many other works.
Hughes died from complications due to prostate cancer on May 22, 1967; he was sixty-five.
As with most queer figures in history, Hughes never publicly identified as homosexual and academics therefore “debate” about the nature of his sexuality. According to those who knew him, however, there is no doubt that Hughes was gay, though he was extremely guarded.
“It’s important to remember,” Hilton Als recently wrote, “that [Hughes] came of age in an era during which gay men—and blacks—were physically and mentally abused for being what they were.” And, in a significant number of Hughes’ works, his queerness is clear. Most famously, there is the short story “Blessed Assurance,” in which a father frets over his gay son: “Unfortunately…it seems his son was turning out to be a queer. He was a brilliant queer…But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear.” #HavePrideInHistory #LangstonHughes