Thursday, January 14, 2021

Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and the Underground


These days, it's quite possible to take courses on African American literature, cover writers like Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison, and yet hear relatively little about their involvement with leftist politics and their publishing activities with Communist papers. Their distinct politics represent a kind of underground -- something hiding in plain sight but still not on the main airwaves or formal channels.

Hughes, Wright, and Ellison met based on their shared interests and links to common political networks. In his 1973 biography The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright, Michel Fabre pointed out that Wright's career as a writer began "as a revolutionary poet" (98). In June 1934, the communist magazine New Masses published the poem "I Have Seen Black Hands" by a then twenty-five-year-old Wright. 

After reading the poem, a more well-established poet, Langston Hughes, became interested in meeting Wright. So when Hughes visited Chicago in late 1935 and early 1936, he sought out the younger poet. Hazel Rowel describes Hughes and Wright meeting in her biography, Richard Wright: The Life and Times (2001): when the two writers met, "Hughes liked [Wright] immediately. As well as their writing, he and Wright had left-wing politics in common" (111). 

By the summer of 1936, Hughes was back in New York City. He was staying at the YMCA, and one morning in July while Hughes and Alain Locke stood in the lobby talking, a young man, Ralph Ellison, approach them. He had recently arrived to New York from Tuskegee, Alabama, and he was staying at the Y as well. Going up to the two men proved consequential for Ellison.  

"Meeting Langston Hughes would change [Ellison's] life forever, " observed Arnold Rampersad in his 2007 biography of Ellison (82). Hughes served as a guide as Ellison began learning about New York City, leftist politics, and leftist literature. Moreover, when Hughes learned that Wright was moving to New York City, he made him aware that Ellison wanted to meet him. 

Soon after, Ellison received a postcard that read: "Dear Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes tells me that you're interested in meeting me. I will be in New York..." The postcard was signed by Wright (Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, 665). Wright moved to New York in the summer of 1937, and when he and Ellison met, they became friends. 

In June 1937, they both attended the Second American Writers' Congress, an association of writers sponsored by the League of American Writers, which was formed by the Communist Party USA. By the way, all of this was before Wright became a well-known novelist. It was Wright the poet who first attracted Hughes and then Ellison. And it was their varied affiliations with communist ideas that brought them together in interrelated networks. 

Put another way, Hughes, Wright, and Ellison met underground. 

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