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May 22: Langston Hughes

May 21, 2015

1000509261001_1313081595001_Bio-Mini-Bio-Langston-Hughes-SFPoet, writer, and social activist Langston Hughes — whose paternal great-grandfather was a Jewish slave-trader in Kentucky named Silas Cushenberry, and whose second collection of poems was titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (Knopf, 1927) — was born in Joplin, Missouri on this date in 1902. Hughes was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, traveled in Communist circles in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote several pieces about how anti-Semitism had been rapidly suppressed, or so he thought, in Communist countries, so why not racism in America?), and became a key figure of black pride and cultural self-awareness in the 1960s and ’70s. (He was also embraced by the LGBTQ movement as an icon of the gay closet.) Among the Jews in his life were his literary agent, Maxim Lieber, who fled to Mexico and then Poland after Alger Hiss’ conviction for perjury in his spying trial; Alfred and Blanche Knopf, his publishers; and composer Kurt Weill, with whom Hughes collaborated on Street Scene, a musical that won the Tony Award for Best Original Score in 1947. The title of Fine Clothes to the Jew echoed a Harlem phrase about pawn shops. The book was criticized for its title, its dialect style, and its frankness about poverty and degradation in the black community, but biographer Arnold Rampersad called it Hughes’ “most brilliant book of poems.”

“When hard luck overtakes you/Nothin’ for you to do/Gather up yo’ fine clothes/An’ sell ‘em to de Jew/... Jew takes yo’ fine clothes/ Gives you a dollar an’ a half/ Go to de bootleg’s/Git some gin to make you laugh.” —Langston Hughes, “Hard Times”