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black history: langston hughes knew there was nothing wrong with being a “black artist”
February 1, 2018
Langston Hughes’ name is synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. As a poet, writer, playwright and activist, Hughes was a major force in Black artistic innovation, and his work has reverberated through Black artistry today.
This was no accident. Hughes was unapologetic about his Blackness, and had no reservations about being called a “Black artist.” In fact, he famously claimed he felt “ashamed” for artists who sought to distance their Blackness from their artistry, saying it is “as though [their] own racial world [was] not as interesting as any other world:
“So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world,” Hughes wrote for The Nation. “I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange un-whiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”
Oh, how many Black artists would do well to hear those words out today.
Of course, one could say that given Hughes’ privacy about his sexuality—which many biographers and students of his work read as not heterosexual—an argument could be made about distancing oneself from being “queer” artist as well. But that Hughes’ did not embrace his sexuality publicly could also be attributed to the danger in doing so at the time, not an unwillingness.
Either way, on what would have been the 116th birthday of Langston Hughes, let’s commit to not running away from our Blackness nor our queerness, for our Black queer worlds are as full of life as any other, if not more.
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