Langston Hughes, race, memory

Happy 112th birthday to Langston Hughes. A few items in memory: one video of Gary Bartz’s interpretation of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (thanks to Chike Jeffers for the link), a reading of “The Weary Blues” to jazz accompaniment in 1958, and a passage from Haunting and Displacement on Hughes’ complex relation to Africa and America.


First, this amazing Gary Bartz interpretation of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

Second, footage from a reading in 1958:

And a passage from Marisa Parham’s 2009 book Haunting and Displacement in African-American Literature and Culture:

“Transformative in its symbolic turn, for it is in fact not a return, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is  fully self-referential and self-authorizing in its attempt to tell us the truth about African-American origins and the veracity of black identity. It subverts notions of linear temporality, instead relying on repetition to convey a sense of constant, active flow, as if after the ending, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” the poem could regenerate itself. In this way, Hughes imbues water with agency and represents it as the embodiment of perfect memory. Maybe, with time, the specific images would change – but the text, or rather its sub-textual energy, will always remain, beautiful and nostalgic, able to recast a moment in its most generative, therapeutic light.

On the one hand, to establish a site of memory commensurate with one’s own body seems an efficacious strategy for overcoming the losses inherent to forced migration. Yet in its effort to overcome historical rupture and fragmentation, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” produces a potentially haunting ideality, for the image of the poem reflects back to its reader may exceed the reader’s capacity to in fact meet the image and thereby experience the promise it offers. Further, insofar as successful identification relies on social ratification, Hughes’ consciously racialized, homogeneous site proves materially inadequate. The African-American subject is by necessity a hybrid subject; for although there was not for Hughes a ratified identification with an ideal Americanness, for which we may hold responsible the racism of twentieth-century America, the fact of the Middle Passage nonetheless disallows an African-American’s identification as purely African.

Years after writing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes would record in The Big Sea an attempt to attend a religious ceremony with Pey, one of his African shipmates. Hughes feels rejected when Pey does not identify him as African: “‘But I’m not a white man,’” Hughes argues; “‘You no black man, neither,’ said Pey impatiently,” thus rejecting Hughes’ essentialized ideal of his own Africanness. By doing so, by looking at Hughes and acknowledging difference, Pey exhumes the inescapability of the very thetic experience “Rivers” seeks to elide. Although he does not realize it, Pey removes the “African” from African-American and leaves Hughes with “-American”: at a distance from American, not quite American, or simply a hyphen. Pey relegates him to an ambiguous, heterogeneous space from which Hughes cannot claim a single, ratified origin. As Hortense Spillers has suggested:

those African persons in ‘Middle Passage’ were literally suspended in the “oceanic,” if we think of the latter in its Freudian orientation as an analogy for undifferentiated identity: removed from the indigenous land and culture, and not-yet “American” either, these captive persons, without names that their captors would recognize, were in movement across the Atlantic, but they were also nowhere at all.

Pey’s abjection returns Hughes to nowhere at all as he adds to Hughes’ understanding of heritage a tacit awareness of his genealogical distance from Africa. As Arnold Rampersad notes, Hughes “quickly discovered that no African though of him as one of them: ‘The Africans looked at me and would not believe I was a Negro.’” His, or for that matter any post-Passage subject’s, desire to return to a pure, single origin is reasonable in light of the privileged status given to genealogical homogeneity in the context of any national identity. But the sanctity of the rivers, insofar as it posits an immutable racial origin, is undergirded by a misrecognition. Although Hughes’ water and blood metonym works in the interest of creating an unfragmented racial self, that same “blood” – genealogy – also reflects loss or, perhaps more precisely in this case, the truth of a heterogeneous, entangled origin, à la Hughes’ own muddy Mississippi.” (19-21)