Advanced, repressed, and popular: Langston Hughes during the cold war (1).
You don't make things popular just because you want them to be simple, but because you want people to understand them. But when people understand things, then they demand more. And so I think the question is, how do you combine the advanced with the popular? (Amiri Baraka)
In 1948, the Langston Hughes canon included twenty volumes of fiction and poetry, a broad range of magazine and journal articles, a host of short stories, a Broadway play, a Broadway musical, a Hollywood screenplay, eight radio scripts, and more than a dozen song lyrics. By 1952, Hughes told friends that his books were getting "simpler and simpler and younger and younger" (Berry 1983, 320), for it was during the 1950s that he returned to writing for young people, and his popular Jesse B. Simple character, producing four "Simple" books as well as seven history texts for young people. But the announcement also revealed the particular social and political circumstances that he faced as a professional African American writer during the high period of the cold war. Despite an outpouring of writing in every genre and literary form within his reach, more than a hundred appearances on the lecture circuit in the United States and Canada, and (belated) canonization by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Hughes remained unable to support himself as a writer. Ironically, it was not proceeds from his published works but a $1,000 cash grant from the Academy--the largest single sum he had ever received during his career--that provided the down payment on his first permanent residence, a Harlem townhouse that he moved into in July 1948.
By comparison, William Faulkner was making $1,250 a week as a professional writer during the 1930s and 40s, and he was bringing in thousands of dollars a piece for screenplays and the movie rights to his short stories and novels, in one case $50,000 for Intruder in the Dust (Minter 1980, 220). While Faulkner was securing a lucrative writer-in-residence position at the University of Virginia, Hughes was being denied a poet-in-residence job at Texas Southern, a position offered and then withdrawn after threats and intimidation from anticommunist and white supremacist groups at the University. In fact, Hughes was an early victim of the kind of political firing that would eventually force hundreds of left-wing American college and university professors from the academy (Wittner 1974, 124).
Hughes described his situation as "literary sharecropping," a term he would use for the rest of his career (Nichols 1980, 292). The term drew attention more to the persistence of racial oppression in the United States than to the punishing effects of the anticommunist movement on political writers and artists like himself, since African American artists had been victims of "blacklisting" long before the creation of the House Un-American Activities Committee. "Negro writers, being black, have always been blacklisted in radio and TV," Hughes told the Authors League of America in 1951 (1957, 46). Unwilling to accept that his participation in the communist movement of the 20s and 30s had made all subsequent attempts to enter the U.S. mainstream doubly hard, Hughes pushed forward, taking on projects that he was less than passionate about, or that he could never finish. His literary agent in the 1950s, Ivan von Auw, characterized Hughes's response to the cold war conjuncture thusly: "He didn't concentrate enough on just one project. Instead, he seemed easily distracted, always running all over the place. He honestly believed that the way to get ahead was to take on everything offered. I think he was wrong; but perhaps he had no choice, really" (Rampersad 1988, 196).
Yet, as I will argue, to say that Hughes "had no choice really" is an undialectical way of seeing things, for the circumscribed choices he did make during the cold war were based on a rather systematic approach to writing, teaching, and producing literature. The treatment of Hughes's method in this essay aims to accomplish three things. First, to challenge the prevailing "common sense" view of Hughes in the U.S. academy that sees him, almost exclusively, as a folk poet, which has come at the expense of his other advanced contributions to aesthetics; second, to dispel the myth that Hughes abandoned socialist politics after being targeted directly and relentlessly by the anticommunist movement; and third, to show, pedagogically, the felicitous uses today of his theory of English composition, which is laid out in his 1954 text The Book of Rhythms, the basis of which was a writing workshop he directed in Chicago in 1949.
More Than a Folk Poet: Hughes's Theory of Aesthetics
Three decades after announcing famously in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" his purpose as a writer--to help win self-determination for African American artists--Hughes found himself at an impasse. Writing geared for the mass market brought harsh criticism from the literary establishment, while erstwhile publishers replied to writing from the left with one rejection slip after another. To make matters worse, his opportunities on the lecture circuit dwindled, largely due to the success of a decade-long propaganda campaign against him by the white supremacist, anticommunist group, America First (Berry 1983, 316). The anticommunist right's aim was to force Hughes, one of the world's most recognizable left cultural workers, to renounce socialism, and to undermine the new links he had begun to make between African American writers and a new African American reading public. The crusade against Hughes culminated in 1953 when he was summoned to appear before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations. In the assessment of Hughes scholar George Cunningham, "He hoped that his readings would help to build a Negro reading public for the works of Negro authors, and at the same time, to stimulate and inspire the younger Negroes in the South toward creative literature, and the use of their own folklore, songs, and racial background as the basis for expression" (1994, 35). His situation as a writer deeply circumscribed and overdetermined by a repressive nexus of anti-black and anticommunist political forces, Hughes returned to work on two unfinished projects: his Simple Saga and a series of popular histories for children. That the Simple stories saved his career is certain; less clear are the relations between popular culture and literature in his writing during the height of the cold war, and how Hughes approached the problem as an intellectual.
As a literary response to the cold war, both projects are interesting objects of study. Hughes's shrewd point in his Simple columns about the dual function of the color line--to keep not only black folks down and out but reds too--could be easily applied to popular culture and social democracy, for it was during the early stages of the cold war that American anticommunist intellectuals launched the first organized attack on popular culture. On trial were specific art forms, styles, genres, mediums, and aesthetics, since the sole criterion for determining guilt or innocence was the subject's mainstream or popular accessibility, including children's literature, photographic essays, the "New Hollywood," writing workshops, Broadway musicals, and other forms favored by Hughes.
As the 1954 U.S. Army pamphlet How to Spot a Communist revealed, the attack on popular culture from the anticommunist establishment was a logical corollary of the U.S. right wing's intention to destroy all forms of popular democracy in the society. The pamphlet, for example, asserted that a communist could be identified by his or her "predisposition to discuss civil rights, social and religious discrimination, the immigration laws, [and] antisubversive legislation"; communists could also be spotted by their use of the terms "chauvinism," "book-burning," "colonialism," "demagogy," "witchhunt," "reactionary," "progressive," and "exploitation" (Caute 1978, 296). For creative artists like Hughes, the anticommunist movement's narrowing of themes and subjects, as well as genres and forms by which they could be expressed, to only those which affirmed God, family, and country helped to create the conditions for a systematic, negative critique of U.S. society. In response, Hughes utilized the idea of negative critique, or "negative resonance," to borrow Adorno and Horkheimer's formulation, in his writing for young people. The attack on "affirmative culture" by the right--the foreclosure of anything that affirmed socioeconomic equality and the enforcement of civil rights in U.S. society--left wide open, dialectically, whole fields of popular culture through which the ideals of high art, such as rupture and dissonance, could be carried out by American artists.
What Hughes's output during the high period of the cold war illuminates is two-fold: first, the sea-change in American popular culture from "affirmative culture" to the arts of "negative resonance"; and second, the fresh line of intervention by which socialist intellectuals and artists could imagine a political unity of the U.S. working classes. In addition to bringing to light the emergent popular-democratic movements for social change, such as the struggle for desegregation, another goal of the international alliance of scientists and cultural workers was the dismantling of atomic weaponry in the United States and Europe. For Hughes, the task was to attract American workers to civil rights struggle and social democracy with an advanced literary aesthetic and a steady diet of aesthetic forms and structures that raised their standards, that met their own desires, and that mirrored their own way of seeing and feeling the world.
In 1942, Hughes described succinctly his intellectual formation. If read next to the anticommunists' condemnation of popular culture, his list of influences and favorite public figures amounted to a total self-indictment:
My chief literary influences have been Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. My favorite public figures include Jimmy Durante, Marlene Dietrich, Mary McLeod Bethune, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marian Anderson, and Henry Armstrong. I live in Harlem, New York City. I am unmarried. I like Tristan, goat's milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats, and bullfights; I dislike Aida, parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, busses, and bridge.... My writing has been largely concerned with the depicting of Negro life in America. I have made a number of translations of the poems of Negro writers in Cuba and Haiti. In 1931-32 I lectured throughout the South in the Negro schools and colleges there, and one of my main interests is the encouragement of literary ability among colored writers. The winter of 1934 I spent in Mexico, where I translated a number of Mexican and Cuban stories. I was The only American Negro newspaper correspondent in Spain, in 1937-for The Baltimore Afro-American. I am executive director of the Harlem Suitcase Theater, the only Negro Worker's Theater in New York. I received the Palms Intercollegiate Poetry Award in 1927, the Harmon Award of Literature in 1931, in 1934 was selected by Dr. Charles A. Beard as one of America's twenty-five "most interesting" personages with a "socially conscious" attitude, and in 1935 was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship for creative work. (Kunitz and Haycraft 1942, 684)
In the context of Hughes's relationship to children's literature, which would figure prominently in his career during the 1950s, Dwight MacDonald's denunciation of the genre in his 1953 essay "A Theory of Mass Culture" can be read as openly jingoistic. MacDonald's problem with the children's literature of the 30s and 40s was that it had "adultized children," replacing the popular symbol of Uncle Sam with that of Peter Pan (Rosenberg 1957, 66). Under the aegis of anticommunism, MacDonald's attack on juvenile literature was both a realignment of the ideologies of patriarchy and American empire and a thinly-veiled argument for reversing the democratic gains made in American literature and culture during the Popular Front period, the popularization of children's literature being one such significant gain. For as Christopher Lasch has argued in his perceptive essay "The Cultural Cold War," the principal stratagem of American anticommunism during the 50s was to conflate the aims and ideals of bourgeois liberalism with those of revolutionary socialism. For fellow travelers such as MacDonald, Lasch writes, anticommunism
represented a new stage in their running polemic against bourgeois sentimentality and weakness, bourgeois "utopianism" and bourgeois materialism. That explains their eagerness to connect Bolshevism with liberalism--to show that the two ideologies sprang from a common root and that it was the softness and sentimentality of bourgeois liberals that had paradoxically allowed communism ... to pervade Western society in the thirties and early forties. (Lasch 1969, 68)
Thus, the claim that Hughes's response to the rise of American anticommunism was to choose a less "political" kind of writing (children's literature and the Simple stories, among other popular, sentimental literary forms) is belied by the fact that the anticommunist movement considered genres and forms such as these to be no less "red" than radical political organizations. To be sure, Hughes took no chances with the anticommunist right, severing ties with leftist organizations, including the American Labor Party and the National Council of American-Soviet Friendship, which had come under investigation by the FBI and the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (Rampersad 1988,198). But his turn toward popular literature and culture cannot be read in the same light, a fact that Hughes was reminded of constantly.
For example, when the first book-length collection of his Simple stories, Simple Speaks His Mind, went to press in the spring of 1950, Hughes's editor at Simon and Schuster made a concerted effort to disguise the politics of the book, describing it as a "charming portrayal" of Negro life in Harlem. The editor dismissed Hughes's objections to the advertisements, insisting that Simon and Schuster could not afford to "frighten prospective readers away by indicating that it is, in any sense, a tract" (Rampersad 1988, 178). In terms of his own position on American popular culture, since the mid-30s Hughes had been an outspoken critic of white racism in Hollywood and on the air. In 1945, for instance, he responded to Columbia University Professor of Communications Erik Barnouw's query about race and radio thus:
Radio furnishes some very good Negro entertainment, but comparatively little more, seldom touching on the drama or the problems of Negro life in America ... And it continues to keep alive the stereotype of the dialect-speaking, amiably moronic Negro servant as the chief representative of our racial group on the air. (Barnouw 1945, 284)
As Barnouw noted at the time, not only had Hughes himself expressed a strong interest in writing a daytime serial about an African American family, but also his name was the first mentioned whenever the subject was raised in radioland (1945, 285). In fact, Hughes's first impulse was to make the would-be popular Simple stories into a radio program, not into short fiction or a novel; the networks, however, remained either indifferent or openly hostile to such a proposal (Rampersad 1988, 155). Reading his unaired 1945 radio drama "Booker T. Washington in Atlanta"--an experimental piece based on the forms and concepts of arena theater--it is clear that American radio listeners, as well as the medium itself, missed out when Hughes was banished de facto from the airwaves (Barnouw 1945, 283-94).
Exiled from Hollywood, radio, and television, Hughes still managed a twenty-year march through the fledgling sites of American popular culture. His two main interventions in popular aesthetics were the Simple stories and his popular histories for young people. But there were other interventions as well, interventions that laid the groundwork for his work on Simple and in children's literature. In the 50s and 60s, Hughes worked on several collaborations that established the creative method by which he would carry out these later interventions. They are worth noting also for what they show about the specific obstacles he faced as a socialist African American writer in cold-war America.
The first collaboration of the 50s was a photo-essay with African American photographer Roy DeCarava, The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), and the second was a pictorial history of African Americans co-authored by the Jewish American scholar Milton Meltzer, A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956). Finding a publisher for A Pictorial History proved extremely frustrating for Hughes and Meltzer, as more than ten firms turned down the project. According to Meltzer, "Two or three even said that blacks don't read, so why bother with them? And a few suggested going to a foundation, since no normal publisher would take on such a pointless task" (Rampersad 1988, 248). In the case of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a publisher was not hard to find; the problem was that Simon and Schuster had cut costs on the book, unbeknownst to Hughes and DeCarava, by printing pocket-size paperback editions rather than the big and glossy coffee table books that were standard for works of popular photography. In the mid-60s, Hughes worked again with Meltzer on a pictorial history, Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment (1967), arguably the most comprehensive history of African American popular culture ever published.
Black Magic is an exhaustive account of the origins of virtually every African American popular art form, from major elements such as hand-clapping, stick dancing, and the drum-beating rhythms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as well as the spirituals and folk culture, to constitutive elements such as the making of homemade banjos and drums, and a list of the first African American radio commentators and newscasters. The text is filled with an amazing array of esoterica, the stuff of any lasting book on popular culture. For example, in their ninth chapter, "Just About Everything," Hughes and Meltzer provide a fascinating history of the first African American "exhibits" in P. T. Barnum's traveling circus. Barnum's first set of Siamese Twins--the fourteen-year-old Carolina twins, Millie and Christina--are discussed, along with Barnum's first "Fat Ladies," who were actually blues singers looking for steady work--Big Maybelle and Beulah Bryant. There's also a story about Barnum's first "Giants," one of whom was an African American Civil War veteran named Admiral Dot. Admiral Dot stood 7 feet 11 inches tall and weighed 600 pounds; the text is accompanied by a rare daguerreotype of the Admiral. There are also brief histories of forgotten pioneers such as "the world's most beloved nightclub hostess," Ada "Bricktop" Smith Du Conge. Made into a celebrity in Paris during the early 20s with the help of Louis Aragon, Bricktop ran the most popular nightclub in Paris for nearly twenty years. In addition to the brief histories of individual pathfinders, there are short histories of institutions such as the Lincoln Theater in Harlem, the Lafayette Players, and the American Negro Theater, which began in the basement of the New York Public Library. But perhaps the most delightful and useful aspect of the book is, not surprisingly, the graphics. Mixed throughout the text are playbills, posters, signed photographs, advertisements, rare photographs of artists at work, newspaper clippings, drawings, and diagrams.
These three texts belong to the coffee table book genre, and as such constitute one of three main lines of intervention into popular literature chosen by Hughes in the cold war period. Contemporary critics have placed the other two--short story fiction and juvenile literature--into the category of "high" literature, yet the relations between the final form of these works and the "wreckin' shop floor" from whence they came have not been recognized or explored. The following notes are meant to elucidate these relations and to advance a concept--the "collage aesthetic"--that could account for the logic and direction of Hughes's astonishingly diverse and prolific literary output during the cold war. The dialectic of Hughes's literary production during the 50s and early 60s is precisely the diversifying of popular aesthetic forms, preferences, and practices from within an increasingly narrow, monolithic, segregationist, and antipopular system of mass culture.
Art for the Sake of Conscious Youth: Making Politics Popular
When Hughes's writings for young people are mentioned by literary scholars and critics, his juvenile poetry and short fiction are ranked above the popular histories he wrote, if the latter are acknowledged at all. Like his radio scripts in the 40s and 50s, it can be argued that Hughes's histories for young people are neglected today in spite of their certain success in the market place and the classroom. In this way, the aim of the present essay is to situate these writings in the context of the cold war in order to better understand the unrecognized vitality of Hughes's relations with socialist politics and popular aesthetics, and to appreciate his overriding purpose in these works through an analysis of one in particular, The Book of Rhythms.
In terms of African American youth culture and political education, the veteran rapper Chuck D issued in 1996 a blueprint on the topic, which he titled "Ten Resentments of the Industry." The ideas expressed in Chuck D's blueprint reflect important elements of Hughes's relationship to mainstream American culture; it is helpful, then, to quote generously from his piece. Four of Chuck D's resentments are:
I resent the fact that between ownership and creativity in the entertainment and music industry, blacks are not presented the options on how they can participate in it, besides singing, rapping, dancing, telling jokes or acting.... I resent the pedestal that we human beings place on others based on minimal manufactured achievements. The illusion of so-called stars has created, through culture, the imaginary perception of falling off. You never fall off if you know where you are. Star spelled backwards is rats. And the attitude of a rat is what many have adopted and portrayed to its public: slam-dunking, rhyming, singing when it meant nothing a hundred and fifty years ago in the United States. So what's the big deal now? ... I resent the cowardly lack of voice leadership by industry blacks under the spotlight projected by the media, on real issues, on their refusal to name and acknowledge real leaders without that spotlight, to make real changes in life regularly.... I resent the fact that we do not keep and store facts about us, leaving others to create facts about us. Television and radio has a serious imbalance of entertainment and information, imbalances of show and business, therefore steering youth culture to focus goals on only that of being an athlete or entertainer. (Chuck D 1996)
Chuck D's resentments illuminate a series of questions relevant for considering Hughes's likewise conflicted relationship with American popular culture. Given the persistence of racial oppression in United States society, which has given us a white racist national-popular culture, how do African American popular artists develop their own popular audiences and independently carry out their own artistic plans and projects? To phrase the problem differently, how do African American artists create popular art independent of white privileged mass culture so long as popular democratic culture itself remains dependent on it? Moreover, how could independent African American voices be raised up (Chuck D's concept of "voice leadership") in a system designed at every level to reduce them to one undifferentiated social status? For Chuck D, every constraint on African American popular expression, and every form of exploitation and co-optation obtaining in the American entertainment industry, is a result of "white Americanism," in the sense given it by W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk: the glorification of "dollars and smartness" at the expense of "light-hearted but determined Negro humility" (1969, 52).
My suggestion is that Chuck D's ten point critique of U.S. media culture is Hughesian in aim and conception. To put it differently, Chuck D's critique, presented perspicaciously on his CD The Autobiography of Mistachuck (1996), was enabled by Hughes's work during the 50s. Although each of Chuck D's ten points could easily generate separate empirical research projects in American popular culture, these four in particular serve as fruitful departure points, or concepts, for an analysis of Hughes's popular histories for youth, including specifically his writing workshops, the basis of the Book of Rhythms. First, the need to independently store facts about African Americans in order to counter the media's invention of "facts" about African Americans is the premise of both Hughes's books about African American heroes and First Book of Rhythms, among his other works for children. Second, because the whole star system of U.S. media culture helps reproduce some of the most pernicious anti-Black tropes and images in the American national-popular--from the use and abuse of sports stars like O.J. Simpson and Dennis Rodman to politician-stars like former Detroit mayor Coleman Young (a target of the white national media throughout the 1980s) and Marion Barry (the target of the 1990s)--this system must be counter-attacked. Third, because "the imbalance," as he puts it, "between ownership and creativity in the entertainment and music industry" has forever delimited "the options on how they [aspiring African American creative artists] can participate in it, besides singing, rapping, dancing, telling jokes or acting," a new relationship between popular aesthetics and independent intellectual and political work is the order of the day. In my view, Hughes accomplished this task through his role as a producer of popular culture and a teacher of writing.
The need to independently store facts about African Americans was always linked for Hughes to the nurturing and development of politically active and independent African American popular audiences. What is at stake is the writer's method. In terms of method, Hughes approached writing during the 30s and 40s from two angles simultaneously. Politically, he served as a Black national advocate for international socialism, mainly through his journalism and poetry, while as an artist he asserted the international scale of the American national struggle to abolish racial oppression, precisely by making his interventions at the level of national popular culture and through the formation of national popular aesthetic tastes and preferences. In contrast to Black communists like Claude McKay and Richard Wright, for instance, Hughes approached literature as a dynamic site from which these two battles could be fought at the same time, "not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each," in the words of DuBois (1969, 52). Especially in his popular histories for youth, Hughes set out to answer DuBois's call, and through literary forms newly accessible to the masses of American society.
As Cedric Robinson has observed astutely in his history of the black radical tradition Black Marxism (1983), what distinguished McKay and Wright from their black radical co-workers was the fact that they came to communism directly through black nationalism: McKay through Garveyism and Wright through the black working class of the American South. According to Robinson, this is why they ended-up rejecting the communist solution to racial oppression (1983, 417-18). Yet had he studied Langston Hughes--in fact, not a single mention is made of Hughes in Black Marxism--a different conclusion might have come from his book: that communism and black radicalism are not irreconcilable ways of seeing the world, and not therefore doomed to mutual distrust and indifference, but rather are actually one of the more successful crossovers of our times, a far more successful crossover than that between, say, European-American trade unionism and communism, or environmentalism and communism. Moreover, that these supposedly antithetical worldviews could find common ground in popular literature--in the literary collage form and in children's literature--calls into question Robinson's thesis. Hughes's remarkable success as a black socialist writer goes a long way in explaining his omission from Robinson's study.
Although the conclusions drawn in Black Marxism cannot be adequately addressed here, they do provide a starting point for understanding Hughes's writings for youth. First, Hughes's emphasis on the worldliness or internationalism of African American culture circumvented the polar opposition between black nationalism and international communism by presenting and promoting a way of thinking that depended on both for its "historical uniqueness," to use one of Robinson's central terms. Second, his writings for children in particular revealed as a strategic site of political struggle, at the height of the cold war, the task of winning over to socialism America's youth. Despite the fact that many of these works left out DuBois, for instance--a point repeated needlessly in the scholarship on Hughes, since the works in question were not about intellectuals--or that several were grossly censored by anticommunist editors, there are excellent reasons to study them. That they have not been studied at all tells us two things: that Chuck D's resentments of white American media culture speak directly to a failure of method and not so much to questions of media access and representation, nor to the commodification of African American culture, which have been the main foci of antiracist media critique; and that, more obviously, a great deal of critical work remains to be done on the writing of Hughes.
As Chuck D stresses, the opportunity to participate in the mass production of popular art has worked insidiously against its historic creators by "steering youth culture to focus goals on only that of being an athlete or entertainer." By saturating the U.S. media with affirmations of one-sided conceptions of blackness, the task of regulating all the imaginary social relations needed to continue racial oppression in U.S. society has been made doubly easy. According to the terms laid out by Chuck D, the pillars of the American national-popular are four white racist tropes, reinvented as the current conjuncture requires: 1) African American contentedness (singing); 2) fear of, and lust for, blackness (rapping); 3) loyal and patriotic ex-slaves (dancing); and 4) African American incompetence and buffoonery (telling jokes and acting). If DuBois' concept of Black America's "three gifts"--the gifts of story and song, of sweat and brawn, and of cheer (1969, 275)--is kept in mind, the missing literary trope here is transparent: "sweat and brawn," or labor power. The creative path through which African American labor could be made into a new archetype, while at the same time undermining the reining four, would open up new creative methods for all American writers. As Ishmael Reed nicely put it in his Introduction to 19 Necromancers from Now,
the inability of some students to "understand" works written by Afro-American authors is traceable to an inability to understand the American experience as rooted in slang, dialect, vernacular, argot, and all of the other put-down terms the [English department] faculty uses for those who have the gall to deviate from the true and proper way of English. (Reed 1970, x)
Among those forms that Reed believes "deviate" from what is taught in the American academy are detective novels and dime-store westerns, a point that helps illuminate boldly the specific direction of Hughes's interventions in the 50s. In a phrase, the liberation of American literature, to borrow the title of V.F. Calverton's work of literary history and criticism from the 1930s, must come through the popular in order for artistic autonomy to become possible in U.S. society. For Hughes, the path of the "popular" went directly through young people.
Hughes's Rhythm Writing Workshops: Dynamic Conformism
"There is no rhythm in the world without movement" is how Hughes opens The First Book of Rhythms, the second of six children's books he wrote for Franklin Watts during the 50s and 60s. The first, The First Book of Negroes, had been criticized by Negro intellectuals for leaving out any mention of DuBois or Paul Robeson. In 1965, however, he explained the circumstances that he had faced at the time:
It was at the height of the McCarthy Red baiting era, and publishers had to go out of their way to keep books, particularly children's books, from being attacked, as well as schools and libraries that might purchase books.... It was impossible at that time to get anything into children's books about either Dr. DuBois or Paul Robeson. (Rampersad 1988, 230-31)
As Arnold Rampersad has noted, "it was taken for granted by ... [Hughes's] various publishers that even brief references to DuBois and other radicals were out of the question in a text aimed at children. Such books were virtually indefensible when attacked by the right wing" (1988, 230). To give just one example, Rampersad points out that the first edition of First Book of Negroes had featured a picture of Josephine Baker, but after a New York columnist threatened to attack the book unless all references to her were removed--on the grounds that Baker was a communist--she disappeared from the text in the next printing (1988, 230). Not only were Hughes's children's books vulnerable to anticommunist attack, but his critically acclaimed poetry suffered too:
Just about everyone at the firm of Henry Holt who had been involved in publishing Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred in 1951 and Laughing to Keep from Crying in 1952 had been summarily fired and various contracts canceled. Stock of the books, including Montage, was sold off cheaply--all because of pressure, Langston was told, from reactionary groups backed by oil-rich conservatives. "That Texas oil money suddenly found them their list!" Hughes joked desperately about the fired editors. "All due to a few little poetries." (Rampersad 1988, 85)
Next to his series of "First" books, his photo-essay with Roy DeCarava (The Sweet Flypaper of Life), as well as his history of the NAACP entitled Fight for Freedom, Montage of a Dream Deferred and Laughing to Keep from Crying were indeed "little poetries." The children's books brought him a much wider audience, as did The Sweet Flypaper of Life. More importantly, the whole mode of writing was different. First Book of Rhythms, for example, came directly out of Hughes's teaching experiences at the Laboratory School in Chicago, where in 1949 he led interdisciplinary writing workshops for eighth graders. In contradiction to Ivan von Auw's opinion that Hughes's method during this period was scatterbrained, the project in fact demanded rigorous planning and execution. Synthesizing his research on the subject, Hughes scholar Robert O'Meally writes:
According to his carefully wrought lesson plans, Hughes led a series of discussions of rhythm in plants, animals, and the universe, as well as rhythm in human body movements, speech, music, visual arts, and, of course, poetry. His notes indicate that for homework students were to prepare reports comparing rhythms they had observed. One was scheduled to make a presentation on music and baseball, another on swimming and modern dance (O'Meally 1995, 50)
Like his 1929 cultural studies project at Lincoln University, Hughes's cross-disciplinary intervention twenty years later (e.g., to see in baseball the same logic of development and change that one finds in popular music) witnessed a kind of formal meeting between two distinct partners. This approach gives a sense of Hughes's purpose as an intellectual and how he understood his own role as writer in the world. In terms of the Chicago workshops, his role was to assist in the intellectual-moral development of youth through wide ranging forays in popular culture.
In this regard, Book of Rhythms' table of contents is instructive: it indicates some of the truths that Hughes wanted the students of his experimental laboratory to discover on their own. Organized according to seventeen chapters, each proposes a different research possibility, line of inquiry, and independent writing exercise. The first chapter, "Let's Make a Rhythm," presents the method of discovery, which constitutes the first half of the book's object of study. The second half begins with the ninth chapter, "Athletics," which relies on Hughes's concept of "organic data," such as the operation of industrial equipment and other mass-organized activities, as well as their result: the artifacts of mass production. From a formalist, grammar-centered pedagogical standpoint, seeing in a book on writing a chapter entitled "Furniture" is beguiling. Here, though, Hughes is interested not so much in deconstructing and "rephrasing" the bland schematisms of Anglo-American English studies as in laying the groundwork for a kind of "dynamic conformism" where young people could be socialized into what Hughes termed in his Simple columns the art of "listening fluently." In this new situation, however, the verb "to listen" is replaced by the verb "to move," for as he plainly states in the opening page of Book of Rhythms, "rhythm comes from movement" (1954, 1).
To move fluently requires coordination skills, first and foremost. Since the workshops were writing workshops, Hughes's students started with pad and pencil. "Make a point of a triangle, then a smaller one, then a smaller one than that, then still a smaller one, so that they keep on across a sheet of paper, all joined together," he instructed. "Again, you have made a rhythm. Your hand, your eye, and your pencil all moving together have made on the paper a rhythm that you can see with your eyes" (1954, 1). Then shifting quickly to other sensory skills, the aural and the aerobic, he prepares them for the second part of this start-up exercise. "You can make a rhythm of sound by clapping your hands or tapping your foot," Hughes told them. "You can make a body rhythm by swaying your body from side to side or by making circles in the air with your arms" (1-2). At this point, the students go from making triangles to making circles: "Now make a large circle on a paper. Inside your circle make another circle. Inside that one make another one. See how these circles almost seem to move, for you have left something of your own movement there, and your own feeling of place and roundness. Your circles are not quite like the circles of anyone else in the world, because you are not like anyone else. Your handwriting has a rhythm that is entirely your own. No one writes like anyone else" (2).
This first writing exercise is also the first lesson of dynamic conformism: the exercise is common, as are the tools and the procedures, yet the outcome is highly personalized, even idiosyncratic. In other words, to arrive at the axiom "No one writes like anyone else," the student writers must first engage in a collective writing activity and then follow, in their own unique way, the teacher's general directive to all. But before this can happen, students must learn how to write. "How do you write?" begins the next section of the first chapter. Verb-subject agreement is not the focus, nor is the rule for avoiding run-on sentences, the use of a period and a capital letter, etc. Instead, Hughes has them create their own illustrated rhythm patterns. "Make a rhythm of peaks, starting from the bottom of one peak," he instructs. "Make another rhythm like it, but start from the top. Then do the same thing again, but put one rhythm over the other, and you have a pattern. Fill in with your crayon and you have a pattern of diamond shapes. Rhythm makes patterns" (1954, 2-3).
As far as learning the skills of coordination, it would be appropriate here to make a link between Hughes and Bontemps' collage method in Poetry of the Negro and Book of Rhythms, not only because the rhythm writing workshops took place the same year they completed their landmark anthology, but because the workshop exercises themselves often produced, spontaneously, a collage aesthetic. The basis of the literary collage is repetitions and the use of "multistrip" patterns. As Robert Farris Thompson has it in his brilliant study of West African aesthetics, Flash of the Spirit, one of the signal features of multistrip composition is a strategy "for recovering in a special West African way spontaneity in design, without which there can neither vividness or strength in aesthetic structure" (1984, 211). In fact, the different patterns illustrated throughout Book of Rhythms follow closely the logic of West African textile making--the "rhythmized textiles" documented by Thompson (207). Moreover, a look at the illustrations gives a good indication of how Hughes proceeded in the writing workshops.
Created by the graphic artist Matt Wawiorka, the illustrations doubtless try to match the kinds of writing produced by Hughes and his students in the experimental laboratory. There are two good examples of rhythmized writing and drawing in the book that follow directly from Hughes's initial guidelines: the first a multistrip illustration consisting of a row of bowls and a row of plates, which curls up the right side of chapter fourteen, "Rhythms in Daily Life"; and the second a multistrip pattern that tries to capture the rhythms that moisture makes when it forms snowflakes, hail, rain, and icicles. The second illustration is in the fourth chapter, "Sources of Rhythm." Here, Hughes prefaced his remarks on the sources of rhythm by saying, in Hughesian fashion, that when it comes to rhythmical design, no race--to paraphrase Aime Cesaire--has a monopoly on beauty, strength, and intelligence, that there is room for everybody's rhythm at the rendezvous of victory. The opening page of chapter four reads as follows:
Artists have used animals, trees, men, waves, flowers, and many other objects in nature for rhythms. In France 25,000 years ago the cave men made animal drawings on the walls of their caves. Later the flag lily, fleur-de-lis, became a rhythmical design that is the national symbol of France. African artists a thousand years ago made beautiful masks with rhythmical lines. In the sixteenth century a Spanish artist named El Greco sometimes made a man look like this. (Hughes 1954, 11)
A sketch of a tall and thin man accompanies the text, as does a drawing of the fleur-de-lis. Two pages later is the drawing of rain, snow, hail, and icicles. Thompson has suggested that one of the main variables in the making of West African rhythmized textiles "is a vibrant propensity for off-beat phrasing in the unfolding of overall design" (1984, 209). That is, major accents of one strip are staggered in relation to those of an adjoining strip, which does not become clear or purposeful until the whole of the composition is taken into account.
In the Book of Rhythms drawing, this same technique is in motion. First, there are three rhythmized lines or strips: rain, snow, and icicles. Second, the strips are juxtaposed according to their edges, by their roughest or boldest side; third, the snowflake rhythm designs--there are four--serve as the drawing's major accent. And four, the balls of hail are there to remind us that this design was made through constructive and purposeful human rhythm, and is not an accidental manifestation of desire nor a symptom of lack of desire. In terms of Hughes's fourth rhythm strategy--the preempting of any assumption of accident, to use Thompson's precise formulation--the balls of hail come in many different shapes and sizes yet always at the same interval of time, or section of space, on the page. The balls of hail function as satellites of the snowflakes, usually in groups of four or five. Likewise, the bursts of rain come in many different lengths and widths yet their frequency is a strict form of syncopation, with the accent on the long line (or the off-beat line) occurring every three rain-bursts, forming a 3/2 rhythm structure. Another strategy of rhythmized writing in the drawing is that, while the icicles provide the top of the drawing's border, as if hanging from a gutter, the bottom has none, and the left and right borderlines are given shape only by a group of two bursts of rain and a ball of hail.
Thompson says that this kind of strategy confirms "a love of aesthetic intensity" (1984, 209). What we can say in Hughes's case is that it also establishes a dynamic beginning for the instructor of writing. Hughes's method is an ingenious way of getting students thinking in terms of the rhythm patterns of prose and poetry writing, of lyrical flow, of word sequences, transitions, cadences, and caesuras. Already there is the room to start and stop as suits the writer, but in a disciplined, rhythmized way. In other words, many of the frustrations of the college writing instructor--run-on sentences, comma splices, improper use of punctuation, etc.--are answered in this exercise: how to give life to the rhythms of the natural world (in this case, moisture) on paper. Great novelists have a hard enough time putting these rhythms to words, so the task is simply to draw them. And here the elegance of the design belies the claim that the task is too "elementary." Indeed, knowledge of rhythms is a prerequisite for great architectural design, as Hughes convincingly explains in the closing lines of "The Sources of Rhythm":
Perhaps the curve of a waterfall or the arching stripes of the rainbow suggested the rhythms for the arches of the houses and temples and tombs and bridges of men long ago--the arch of Tamerlane's tomb at Samarkland, the arch of a bridge in ancient China, or the Moorish arches at Granada. When the Egyptians built their tombs and temples over a thousand years before Christ, they knew how to combine the rhythms of nature with the possibilities of stone and sun-dried brick in the structure of their buildings. And the more harmoniously they did this, the more beautiful were their buildings. In splendid palaces the pharaohs lived. The Greeks, hundreds of years before Christ, knew the rhythmical beauty of the soaring line in a column. The rising lines of its many columns made the Parthenon one of the most beautiful buildings ever created. The columns of Greek temples go upward. The pyramids of the Egyptians point upward. The skyscrapers of American cities rise into the skies. Like the blades of grass and the stems of flowers and the trunks of trees, the houses and temples and other buildings of man rise toward the sky where the sun is. Almost nobody builds a house, church, or any kind of building underground. (Hughes 1954, 14-15)
Hughes places emphasis on the constructive power of rhythm, for his one line paragraphs in this passage serve as a figurative homology of the physical columns they describe. He also allows us to see the practical importance of rhythms in terms of building an equalitarian national-popular school curriculum. If to make far-flung connections between disparate histories, ancient and modern alike, as well as between world civilizations, also ancient and modern, is the occupation of the philologist, then the process by which young people internalize both the method and the values of such generalism is the work of the composition teacher of writing rhythms.
Hughes's sweeping account of the role of rhythms in the construction of more than a thousand years worth of architectural landmarks, from bridges in ancient China to skyscrapers in New York, is motivated by his non-specialized method, which must strike today's reader in the United States as alien, even sentimental. As Timothy Brennan has put it cogently with respect to the generalism of Edward Said, "In the United States today, such a gesture is a calculated rebuke to technological panaceas and professionalist poses in the academy and in official public culture" (1993, 82). Yet for Hughes a generalist method for teaching young people about world history and geography, of great civilizations and their historic contributions to human social progress, was not a calculated rebuke but a beginning point, a place from which youth could be fully socialized into the rhythms of equalitarian everyday life: for Hughes, the consummate worldly sphere of existence and for that reason precisely the place to carry on the struggle for a democratic American society.
In a discussion of the pedagogical implications of Hughes's Book of Rhythms, the question arises: But what difference does Hughes's method make? What different kinds of student writing does Hughes's pedagogical approach enable? In the future, this question will be answered more systematically, for as of now his "rhythm writing" approach to teaching English composition is unknown in the discipline of composition studies.
Pedagogical Implications: A Case Study
For the past several years, I have received grants to explore the pedagogical implications of Hughes's method for freshman composition, and with those grants I have been able to begin such a study. As co-coordinator of the composition program at the large, urban community college where I work, I have been able to experiment practically and creatively with Hughes's originary method. What I can share in this respect is, therefore, provisional and very partial but at the same time promising and concrete. Embarking on the Hughesian path of writing instruction along with me have come hundreds of students who have participated directly in the experiment and produced many hundreds of "rhythm writing" composition pieces in my writing courses. Naturally, however, it is very difficult to select one or two in particular that embody all the elements and objectives of a Hughesian approach. Nevertheless, I have included several below that help substantiate the claim that Hughes's theory of composition, developed in the 1950s, is more relevant today than ever.
One of the tenets of the Hughesian method is to establish the student writer's own unique standpoint, but not in the abstract sense of "perspective," "opinion," or "feeling." Hughes had his writing students look closely at themselves, not as others see them but as they feel and think about themselves in relation to the world. Yet, the idea is not to write a personal memoir but instead to focus on a concrete aspect of themselves that could tell a whole story of their social relations--where they come from, where they are, how they got there, and where they are going. Following Hughes, the first writing assignment I give is to have students examine their own unique hands and to allow what they observe directly to shape a story about their lives. One student wrote:
I have long fingers with brittle nails on each of them. They're very light with color and a have a few battle scars. My two pinkies are crooked but one is not fully. It looks like they were broken when I was a baby and no one knew so it healed on its own. My palms used to be so soft and moist but now because of hard labor at work, they are cracked and rough. My palms' skin is red and tight. I love to look at my prints because they are so obvious to see. I have a mole on two fingers and one inside my right palm. Also one on my left wrist. My hands have completed many jobs. Braiding hair, washing dishes, cleaning everything, mopping, or even always being washed away from dirt. My fingers have been cut, jammed, smashed, and more. But they are mine. I think I have beautiful hands no matter what they look like and no matter what kind of labor they have done.
This story is told from a subjective position, but the Hughesian method encourages students to see this felt subjectivity in relation to the real social world. Consequently, it is not enough to instruct writing students, for example, to "describe someone you know"--they need to describe that person in relation to others, including themselves. The second writing assignment I give is to have students portray the rhythms of a person they know, not in the mode of portraiture--that is, in a stationary or static position--but rather in a condition of movement. One student produced this piece:
When I think about Samora, I think about things like: sunsets, a summer breeze and tranquility. Everything about her is sensual, even her name, Samora. When she enters a room she quietly takes it over. She has such a smooth way of handling herself and can make herself comfortable in almost any situation. When she walks, she seems to glide. Talking with her is a tranquil experience; her voice has this calming, relaxing quality, and the way she moistens her lips with her tongue she can hold your attention for hours. I once had the chance to see her under the setting sun. The sun brought this wonderful glow to her caramel complexion. Samora has thick black hair which she wears in a short tapered style, along with these dark piercing eyes that just dance with mystery. She has this provocative way of raising her left eyebrow to let you know that what you are saying is questionable. It's surprising to know that she has so many female friends. She just has a way about her that is attractive to both male and female; you just want to be around her. The most incredible thing about all this is that she's not aware of any of it. She is free of any pretentious ways, it's almost innocent. When I first met her it was at a party that I was invited to. She was having a great time mingling and getting others to relax and enjoy themselves. I was surprised to find out that she was not the host. Samora is a gem, it's just the way she is.
By writing like this, have students become more "politically aware"? That depends on how one defines politics. Hughes was not interested in having his writing students discuss "social issues" or comment critically on current events. Nor was he concerned that they read the New York Times every day. For Hughes, "political awareness" in the writing classroom, as in life generally, is mastering the dialectical unity of the individual and the collective, which is the base of socialism, i.e., the social relations of production. Hence, what is political about Hughes's pedagogy is the new social relation it establishes between teacher and student, and between students and the actual world in which they live, through the production of popular, critical writing. No longer a hierarchical relation (master and pupil), the teacher-student social relation becomes under Hughes's method one of friendly guide and open mind. And in the case of the social relation between students and others, in everyday life, students develop the confidence to approach the world not as passive observers or spectators but instead as individual subjects willing to assert their own desires, preferences, and demands in the face of immensely complex, confusing, and often oppressive environments. In Hughesian terms, by discovering their own writerly conscious, students are now in a position to shape their own destiny in relation to the fate of the society in which they live every day.
In American studies, Hughes is known, in the main, as a "folk poet." It is not difficult to support such a general categorization, yet it misses two important elements. The first is that Hughes applied his lyrical genius to concrete tasks and objectives, such as writing popular histories, as well as directing writing workshops, for American youth. Some of the fine points of this first element have been highlighted, in the light of the rapper Chuck D's blueprint for transforming African American youth culture. The second is that the folk poet description cannot begin to appreciate the strategies, themes, motifs, and images that unify Hughes's work over five decades. The overall aim of this essay is to suggest several central themes in his work that could enable a unified analysis of Hughes's literary legacy. One theme is the education of youth for their active participation in American civil society, and the other is the aesthetic preference for collage. While the two themes are present in virtually every project he undertook in the 50s and 60s, they are put into practice systematically in Book of Rhythms, a text that was, according to the dominant anticommunism of its time, decidedly radical and socialist. Here the limits of the "folk poet" characterization of Hughes are felt most acutely, since the evidence of his life and work during the high period of the cold war paints a different picture: rather than simply a folk poet, Hughes was, especially during the anticommunist purges, a mastermind of method, constantly figuring out new ways to make old equalitarian ideals dynamic and freshly popular.
(1) The main argument in the present essay is developed further in the author's book-length study of Hughes entitled Socialist Joy: Reflections on the Writing of Langston Hughes (2006).
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Jonathan Scott is an assistant professor of English at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He has published articles in Race & Class, Politics and Culture, The Minnesota Review, The Journal of Teaching Writing, and Socialism and Democracy.
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|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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