III: Black Renaissance
I think it was at a party at 17 Gay Street in the Village, where Dorothy and Jimmy Harris lived, that I first heard people talking about New Mexico and Taos, and about writers and artists heading west to the desert and the Indians. It was about that time, too, that I first met Genevieve Taggard, Robert Wolf, and Ernestine Evans. And heard Eli Siegel read “Hot Afternoons There Have Been in Montana.”
I met a lot of very exotic and jittery writers and artists of that period, too. And the more exotic and jittery they were, the more they talked of heading for Taos and the desert and the Indians. So I began to wonder what the Indians would think about their coming and if they would drink as much in Taos as they did in the Village. When I got back to Washington, after one of my prize-money trips to New York, I was walking home from work one night when this poem came to me. I named it “A House in Taos.”
Thunder of the Rain God:
And we three
Smitten by beauty.
Thunder of the Rain God:
And we three
Thunder of the Rain God:
And you, she and I
Waiting for nothingness.
Do you understand the stillness
Of this house in Taos
Under the thunder of the Rain God?
That there should be a barren garden
About this house in Taos
Is not so strange,
But that there should be three barren hearts
In this one house in Taos—
Who carries ugly things to show the sun?
Did you ask for the beaten brass of the moon?
We can buy lovely things with money,
You, she and I,
Yet you seek,
As though you could keep,
This unbought loveliness of moon.
Touch our bodies, wind,
Our bodies are separate, individual things.
Touch our bodies, wind,
But blow quickly
Through the red, white, yellow skins
Of our bodies
To the terrible snarl,
But all one snarl of souls.
Blow quickly, wind,
Before we run back into the windlessness—
With our bodies—
Into the windlessness
Of our house in Taos.
It was a strange poem for me to be writing in a period when I was writing mostly blues and spirituals. I do not know why it came to me in just that way, but I made hardly a change in it after I put it down.
A year or so later from Lincoln University, during my first term there, I submitted the poem to Palms, as an entry in Witter Bynner’s Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Contest. It was given the First Award of one hundred and fifty dollars and published in Palms in 1927. Then amusing things began to happen. I did not know anybody in Taos, nor had I ever been there, but the Greenwich Villagers all seemed to know people there and even houses that the poem fitted, and I received a number of gossipy and amusing letters about it from folks I had never met. In one letter there was even a series of snapshots of what the writer claimed to be the very house of my poem—Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house in Taos.
At that time, I had never heard Mrs. Luhan’s name, nor did I know she had married an Indian, or that Jean Toomer had been a guest in her home. The red, yellow, and white of my poem came from the Indian corn colors of the desert. Three was a mystic number. The rain, sun, moon, and other nature words I used in contrast with the art-houses being built by the exotics from the Village.
Years later, when I met Mrs. Luhan in Carmel, the first thing she said to me was: “My house is not a bit like that.” And she invited me to come and see for myself.
In New York in the summer of 1926, I wrote a poem called “Mulatto” which was published in the Saturday Review of Literature. I worked harder on that poem than on any other that I have ever written. Almost every night that summer I would take it out of the table drawer and retype it and work on it, and change it. When I read it one night at a gathering at James Weldon Johnson’s, Clarence Darrow said it was more moving than any other poem of mine he had read. It was a poem about white fathers and Negro mothers in the South.
From the time when, as a small child in rompers in Lawrence, I had played with a little, golden-haired boy whose mother was colored and whose father, the old folks whispered, was white, and when, as this boy grew up, he went over into the white world altogether, I had been intrigued with the problem of those so-called “Negroes” of immediate white-and-black blood, whether they were light enough to pass for white or not. One of my earliest poems was:
My old man’s a white old man
And my old mother’s black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I’m sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
The problem of mixed blood in America is, to be sure, a minor problem, but a very dramatic one—one parent in the pale of the black ghetto and the other able to take advantage of all the opportunities of American democracy. Later I presented one phase of this problem in my play, Mulatto, on Broadway. And I have written several short stories about it.
My second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, I felt was a better book than my first, because it was more impersonal, more about other people than myself, and because it made use of the Negro folk-song forms, and included poems about work and the problems of finding work, that are always so pressing with the Negro people.
I called it Fine Clothes to the Jew, because the first poem, “Hard Luck,” a blues, was about a man who was often so broke he had no recourse but to pawn his clothes—to take them, as the Negroes say, to “the Jew’s” or to “Uncle’s.” Since the whole book was largely about people like that, workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July—that was why I called my book Fine Clothes to the Jew.
But it was a bad title, because it was confusing and many Jewish people did not like it. I do not know why the Knopfs let me use it, since they were very helpful in their advice about sorting out the bad poems from the good, but they said nothing about the title. I might just as well have called the book Brass Spittoons, which is one of the poems I like best:
Clean the spittoons, boy!
Clean the spittoons.
The steam in hotel kitchens,
And the smoke in hotel lobbies,
And the slime in hotel spittoons:
Part of my life.
Two dollars a Day.
Buys shoes for the baby.
House rent to pay.
Gin on Saturday,
Church on Sunday.
Babies and gin and church
and women and Sunday
all mixed up with dimes and
dollars and clean spittoons
and house rent to pay.
A bright bowl of brass is beautiful to the Lord.
Bright polished brass like the cymbals
Of King David’s dancers,
Like the wine cups of Solomon.
A clean spittoon on the altar of the Lord,
A clean bright spittoon all newly polished—
At least I can offer that.
Fine Clothes to the Jew was well received by the literary magazines and the white press, but the Negro critics did not like it at all. The Pittsburgh Courier ran a big headline across the top of the page, LANGSTON HUGHES’ BOOK OF POEMS TRASH. The headline in the New York Amsterdam News was LANGSTON HUGHES—THE SEWER DWELLER. The Chicago Whip characterized me as “The poet lowrate of Harlem.” Others called the book a disgrace to the race, a return to the dialect tradition, and a parading of all our racial defects before the public. An ironic poem like “Red Silk Stockings” they took for literal advice:
Put on yo’ red silk stockings,
Go out and let the white boys
Look at yo’ legs.
Ain’t nothin’ to do for you, nohow,
Round this town—
You’s too pretty.
Put on yo’ red silk stockings, gal,
An’ tomorrow’s chile’ll
Be a high yaller.
Go out an’ let de white boys
Look at yo’ legs.
Benjamin Brawley, our most respectable critic, later wrote: “It would have been just as well, perhaps better, if the book had never been published. No other ever issued reflects more fully the abandon and the vulgarity of its age.” In the Negro papers, I believe, only Dewey Jones of the Chicago Defender and Alice Dunbar-Nelson of the Washington Eagle gave it a sympathetic review.
The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. (And still are.) In anything that white people were likely to read, they wanted to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot—and only that foot. There was a reason for it, of course. They had seen their race laughed at and caricatured so often in stories like those by Octavus Roy Cohen, maligned and abused so often in books like Thomas Dixon’s, made a servant or a clown always in the movies, and forever defeated on the Broadway stage, that when Negroes wrote books they wanted them to be books in which only good Negroes, clean and cultured and not-funny Negroes, beautiful and nice and upper class were presented. Jessie Fauset’s novels they loved, because they were always about the educated Negro—but my poems, or Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem they did not like, sincere though we might be.
For every Negro intellectual like James Weldon Johnson, there were dozens like Eustace Gay, who wrote in the Philadelphia Tribune, of February 5, 1927, concerning my Fine Clothes to the Jew. “It does not matter to me whether every poem in the book is true to life. Why should it be paraded before the American public by a Negro author as being typical or representative of the Negro? Bad enough to have white authors holding up our imperfections to public gaze. Our aim ought to be to present to the general public, already mis-informed both by well-meaning and malicious writers, our higher aims and aspirations, and our better selves.”
I sympathized deeply with those critics and those intellectuals, and I saw clearly the need for some of the kinds of books they wanted. But I did not see how they could expect every Negro author to write such books. Certainly, I personally knew very few people anywhere who were wholly beautiful and wholly good. Besides I felt that the masses of our people had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate ones who had been born with some means and the ability to work up to a master’s degree at a Northern college. Anyway, I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.
So I didn’t pay any attention to the critics who railed against the subject matter of my poems, nor did I write them protesting letters, nor in any way attempt to defend my book. Curiously enough, a short ten years later, many of those very poems in Fine Clothes to the Jew were being used in Negro schools and colleges.