It was during the writing of my second novel, a few months later, when an American writer who had died some 50 years earlier began to persistently enter my field. Not like a haunting; at least, nothing so exciting. It was the product of research: I was trying to solve a technical challenge I had with my novel and I must have come across an article about Langston Hughes’ visit to Shanghai, China – in part, the subject of my research – in the 1930s. The exact piece is lost to me now, but it led to another, which led me to another, until, sitting in a University library from the Witwatersrand on a Johannesburg winter afternoon, I leafed through a rare copy of Langston Hughes and the South African drumming generation (The Correspondence) between the poet and several South African writers.
Perhaps it was inevitable that I would come to the letters at some point given the line of my investigation, yet there seemed to be a certain serendipity, a literary alchemy. The more I read about Hughes, the more he became a fascinating but elusive figure. The question that has been asked by other artists (such as Isaac Julien, in his film Finding Langston) also harassed me: who has been Langston Hughes?
Hughes’ poetry and writing emerged during a legendary period: the Harlem Renaissance when jazz, art and writing emanated in a collective current of creativity and black defiance. Hughes was prolific and engaged in a variety of literary pursuits: poetry, short stories, children’s books, operas, and frequent lectures and talks. This endless loop made him, in his words, a little more than a “literary sharecropper” linked, in a way, to writing. But how else would he make a living by writing, a feat few blacks of that time had attempted anywhere?
Hughes’ South African connection developed in 1953 when he was invited by the iconic South African magazine drumming judging a short story contest. drumming was a mass-circulation publication that told the stories of black urban life under apartheid with incisive writing and landmark photography of the time. It has become home to some of South Africa’s finest artists. Langston Hughes judged the short story competition for three years. It was part of a productive and warm relationship with several African writers and the continent itself (of which he had always had an esteemed, if not romanticized, view which would lead to disagreements with his African friends).
The more I read about Hughes, the more he became a fascinating but elusive figure.
It was towards the end of his life, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s, that he sought out short stories, poems and non-fiction essays by African writers, culminating in An African Treasure from 1960 and Poems from Black Africa of 1963. During the process of compiling the anthologies, Hughes wrote at length and often warmly to several African writers. The letters offer insight into the very private Hughes and his generosity – although he was often broke, he sent gifts in the form of cash, books, records and even second-hand clothes to some of his even poorer writer friends. Beyond individual connection, however, he also wanted to create a platform for African writers. These efforts have been described by academic Stephen Gray as “the project Hughes spearheaded simply to put African literature in general, as he saw it, on the post-war English language world map.”
While her relationship with Bloke Modisane, a South African writer living in London, was particularly caring and friendly, I was interested in letters to writers based in Cape Town, my home town and where part of my novel took place. Hughes had corresponded, among others, with Richard Rive. Shane Graham, author of Cultural Entanglements: Langston Hughes and the Rise of African and Caribbean Literaturewrites that Rive often acknowledged the importance of African-American writing and, in particular, Harlem Renaissance works, to his own development as a writer.
In the academic silence of the African Studies Library at Wits University in Johannesburg several decades later, I read the letters exchanged between Rive and Hughes. Rive was charming, flirtatious, sometimes begging for favors and fond of gossip (telling slanderous stories about writers still alive today in South Africa). Hughes always offered his help and advice, introducing Rive to his literary agent and advising him on how he could improve his writing. The views of the two men were not without disagreement, and mainly on the subject of Hughes’ outdated understanding of Africa. Nonetheless, they set in motion an exchange that now seems extraordinary: a transatlantic collaboration and exchange of ideas that Hughes found personally and intellectually fulfilling. Rive would not be the only South African to dedicate a book to Hughes.
Today, Hughes remains an intriguing and beloved figure on many continents. Surrounding his presence there remain many silences – particularly around his sexuality and political beliefs – mainly due to Hughes’ insightful approach to self-disclosure. What we do know is that in addition to being one of the most important black writers of his (or any) generation, Hughes chose to develop networks for black writers by creating mentorships, friendships and through his financial and emotional support. From a position of some influence, he attracted other black writers but also encouraged an equal exchange of ideas and culture. He did it decades before it was popular or convenient to do so.
That Hughes was able to influence my novel in such a profound way, more than 50 years after his death, indicates that his influence, his voice and his work live on for another generation of African writers.
CA David’s How to be a revolutionary is available now through Verso.