The world is a much different place than when Langston Hughes came into it 112 years ago. Official segregation still ruled the roost and homosexuals were neither seen nor heard in 1902. Today, we have a black president and gay people can marry in 17 states, plus the District of Columbia. Hughes of course was both black and gay, but he could only hide one of those things. The other he embraced.
For most of his 65 years, Hughes championed his fellow black people, their beauty, and their shared culture. Through his poems, novels, plays and critical commentary, Hughes became the de facto leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary superman of sorts. He was possibly the most famous young black man of the 1920s, and he used his fame not only to celebrate his race, but also laborers, the colonized and other oppressed people. For example, he opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War, which he covered for The Baltimore Afro-American. For all his liberal activism, though, Hughes couldn’t fight for the gays. Not openly, at least.
But pro-gay messaging can easily be found in Hughes’s works. Many believe “Poem (To F.S.)” was a poem to Ferdinand Smith, a sailor Hughes loved and lost. And there’s no way “Cafe: 3am” isn’t about what it says it’s about:
Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
some folks say.
But God, Nature,
made them that way.
Police lady or Lesbian
The “gayest” of Hughes’s works, though, the one that scholars most point to when highlighting his homosexuality, is the short story “Blessed Assurance." About a father fretting over his smarty-pants queer son, the story is no doubt drawn from Hughes’s own experience with his estranged father. Here’s an excerpt:
"Unfortunately (and to John’s distrust of God) it seems his son was turning out to be a queer. He was a brilliant queer, on the Honor Roll in high school, and likely to be graduated in the spring at the head of the class. But the boy was colored. Since colored parents always like to put their best foot forward, John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear."
The father then tries to figure out how his son could have been gay. Was it the maternal grandfather for whom Delmar, “Delly,” was named? Impossible! He was a womanizer and a pillar in the church, thinks the father. But surely it can’t be his own fault?! Whatever is to blame, this queerness will not be addressed. The father can only pray it will go away.
Scholars overlooked Hughes’s blatant gayness for years, and many continue to do so. This has been done so consistently for a few reasons. First, because of the unspoken edict on “icky” gays, and, second, because of African-American communities’s historic hang-ups on homosexuality. “Hughes's closet was a carefully constructed fortress that he built himself, but it is now guarded by the arbiters of all that is black and cultural, as they ignore the contributions of black gays and lesbians,” writes the excellent and gay-friendly black history site I’ll Keep You Posted. “According to them, acknowledging Brother Langston's full truth would be akin to sullying his tremendous icon status in the African American community with the stain of homosexuality.”
It's also suggested that Hughes closeted himself to please his patrons: “We now understand that to maintain the huge respect and financial support of the black churches and cultural institutions, Hughes remained closeted while many of his contemporaries did not. From Luther to Tyler, this is a legacy that continues to haunt African American public figures.”
Times continue to change, of course: more Americans embrace LGBT people and more black, gay celebrities are coming out of the closet, helping alleviate tensions between the communities. Another poet, Frank Ocean, comes to mind. But accepting new black artists is only part of the happy ending. The other part requires going back and making sure that people today understand the real story of people like Hughes, a man whose sexuality, however unspoken, shaped his insightful and touching works, the Harlem Renaissance, and ultimately American culture as a whole. Historical revisionism needn’t be a bad thing — not if it’s telling the truth.