Remembering Langston Hughes

Good morning, Revolution:
You’re the very best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from
now on.

— From “Good Morning Revolution”
by Langston Hughes (1932)

Langston Hughes, second from right, in the Soviet Union with revolutionary writers, 1932.

Born Feb. 1, 1902, Langston Hughes was memorialized by African American magazines and newspapers of his time as the “Poet Laureate for the African American people.” His poems spoke out against racism and national oppression and agitated for working class liberation, among other topics.

Hughes felt the sting of poverty and racism from an early age. From his first job as a hotel janitor in the seventh grade, until he became a full-time writer at age 30, he worked many low-wage jobs.

He began writing poetry in eighth grade and was named “class poet” at his school in Illinois. Later, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he discovered his love for politics and learned about the struggles of workers all over the world.

In 1917, after the Bolsheviks seized state power in the name of the working class, Hughes and his classmates held a celebration for the revolution and its leader, Vladimir Lenin. Hughes was interested in the ideas put forward by the revolution—social freedom, equality and an end to economic exploitation. He thought private property should be controlled by the people who toil to keep society moving.

Hughes entered Columbia University in 1921. He remained at Columbia for only one year, feeling frustrated by the racism of his white peers. But he had discovered Harlem. In the next few years, Hughes became deeply enmeshed in the flourishing Black arts and culture scene in Harlem—known as the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry and writing began to receive awards; he was becoming well known.

Poems on revolution

During the Great Depression, Hughes grew more politically active, becoming a communist and working on many communist-led campaigns. He participated in the campaign to free the Scottsboro boys—nine innocent Black youths framed for raping two white women—and spoke out on behalf of the Spanish Republic and the Soviet Union.

Bourgeois literary critics were incensed with the overt political content of Hughes’s 1930s work. During the 1930s he wrote not only poetry, but also fiction, plays, essays, songs and news articles. His poetry was frequently published in communist periodicals. The critics berated Hughes for his writings on revolution.

In 1932, he went to the Soviet Union, which he admired as a symbol of hope. Hughes disagreed with the negative depiction of the socialist country in the U.S. bourgeois press: “The daily papers picture the Bolsheviks as the greatest devils on earth, but I couldn’t see how they could be so bad if they had done away with race hatred and landlords—two evils that I knew first hand.”

He wrote poems like “One More ‘S’ in the U. S. A.” to pay tribute to the Soviet Union and agitate for social change within the United States:

Put one more S in the U.S.A.
To make it Soviet.
One more S in the U.S.A.
Oh, we’ll live to see it yet.
When the land belongs to the farmers
And the factories to the working men—
The U.S.A. when we take control
Will be the U.S.S.A. then. …
But we can’t join hands together
So long as whites are lynching black,
So black and white in one union fight
And get on the right track.
By Texas, or Georgia, or Alabama leg
Come together, fellow workers
Black and white can all be red:

Put one more S in U.S.A.

Hughes wanted a just society and wrote passionately against imperialist war. In his poem about World War I called “The Colored Soldier,” he points out that the war was not waged for “democracy” and that returning African American soldiers were greeted with lynchings at the hands of white supremacists.

Targeted by the racist ruling class

Hughes defended the Scottsboro Boys in his writing and political work.

Hughes continued to advocate for the working class throughout his life, despite attempts by the U.S. ruling class to silence the movement. He was targeted by the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee, spearheaded by arch-racist Joseph McCarthy. He answered the attacks leveled against him in a 1963 statement, “Concerning Red Baiting”: “The organizations which have attacked me are, for the most part, the most anti-Negro, anti-Jewish, anti-labor groups in our country.”

Although no longer politically active, Hughes continued to write in the 1960s, giving support to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement in poems like “Birmingham Sunday,” among others.

Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York City. His words continue to inspire African Americans and progressives. As a writer and activist, he fought against the ravages of the capitalist system.

Articles may be reprinted with credit to Socialism and Liberation magazine.

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