Last updated on June 28th, 2013 at 11:05 am
I’m ashamed to say that for the first 42 years of my life. I only knew of Langston Hughes as a poet who occasionally did a column for The Chicago Defender.
Some folks who have heard of Hughes probably don’t know the second part but they might know the fictional character he created for/from the column, Jesse B. Semple—known to all as ‘Simple.’ Hughes used the humorous, frank character to discuss the problems Black people faced during World War II and after with Hughes himself playing the straight man to Simple in those columns.
Hughes is known as the first Black writer to make a living off of writing. If you read his autobiographies, ‘The Big Sea’ and its sequel, “I Wonder as I Wander,’ you might think he did a fantastic job at it, spanning the world for decades like a Black Indiana Jones, writing plays, essays and poetry.
However, when you read the wonderful two-volume biography of Hughes, written by the great Black historian Arnold Rampersad, the truth is much more sobering. There’s a big asterisk next to his accomplishment.
The great writer was what today we’d call a perennially broke free lancer. He had a White patron, one who broke off ties with him, according to Rarnpersad, partly because of Hughes’ Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston and Alain Locke—both wanting to keep Ms. Mason’s favor (and money). Hughes ‘borrowed’ cash many times over the years to survive, particularly from his rich White friends. He stayed with them when he could, and often had to move back in with his mother.
What is not in dispute is that he wrote great Black journalism during his life.
Both autobiographies are really mostly travelogues, long-form narrative journalism of his many adventures—the second and final drafts of events he observed, participated in and, subsequently, wrote about initially in magazines. Personal details were painted in vividly to justify both books as autobiography.
In 1937, Hughes went off to cover the Spanish Civil War. General Francisco Franco had formed his fascist Nationalist rebels to overthrow the Republican Spanish government. The war had gone on for a little more than a year when he arrived.
Hughes sent articles to The Baltimore Afro-American and the Associated Negro Press (the forerunner of today’s NNPA News Service and Trice Edney News Wire). The Black press was happy to have such a famous name do such great international reporting, and Hughes was happy to fight against the fascist cause and receive checks doing so.
The following is the continuation of the excerpt of the first Hughes Spanish Civil War article the The Afro printed: ‘Hughes Bombed in Spain: Tells of Terror of Fascist Raid,’ October 23,1937: See exerpt next week