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Hidden Sexuality in Langston Hughes Poetry

Published on December 14th, 2017 at 01:15 am

By Kiara Vaziri

James Mercer Langston Hughes, a revolutionary poet, novelist, short story writer, playwright, and song lyricist, was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. During his early childhood years, Hughes’s parents divorced and his father moved to Mexico. Until the age of thirteen, Hughes was raised by his grandmother, and at thirteen, he reunited with his mother and stepfather who took up residence in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes began writing poetry in his early teen years, eventually studying at Columbia University in New York City, culminating his education years later at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. During his time in college, Hughes took up a variety of jobs, including assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. Hughes was exceptionally well travelled, for he sailed to Europe and Africa as a seaman and lived in Mexico with his father for a year. Writing through the 1920s to 1960s, Hughes became a monumental figure of the Harlem Renaissance: a social, artistic, and cultural rebirth during the 1920s that brought about the rise of a number of black artists, musicians, poets, and authors. The Harlem Renaissance gave black artists the platform to celebrate black culture, while simultaneously commenting on the inequalities of segregated life. Many of Hughes’s work questioned American political and social culture, as well as the unequivocal discrimination and inequality faced by black Americans. Not only did Hughes write from the perspective of a black male living in the early 20th century, but a closeted black male living during this turbulent time. Many gay and bisexual Americans faced backlash for their sexuality, leaving many to live their lives closeted from fear of judgement and, sometimes, violence. Much of this unwillingness to accept Americans of the LGBTQ community came from America’s highly conservative and religious society, which strictly preached the teachings of the Bible. Many African Americans of this time were especially religious, devoutly practicing their faith. Due to the hostility towards both homosexuals and African Americans, Hughes felt he had no choice but to remain in the closet. His closeted identity has enhanced his poetry, giving scholars multiple perspectives to interpret the meaning behind his distinguished works. Throughout his poems, Hughes questions concepts of masculinity, innocence, and sexuality in a voice that amalgamates racial oppression and hidden sexuality, as seen in the works “Trumpet Player,” “Mulatto,” and “Cafe: 3 a.m.”

Hughes often writes of dominant, masculine male figures in his poems under the hidden behind the perspective of a young female. With the knowledge of his true sexuality, alternative perspectives appear when reading his poems, leaving the reader to wonder if they are truly from a female perspective or that of Hughes. In his poem, “Trumpet Player,” he intimately writes of a striking black trumpet player who plays through the hardships of being racial adversity:

The music
From the trumpet at his lips
Is honey
Mixed with liquid fire.
The rhythm
From the trumpet at his lips
Is ecstasy
Distilled from old desire — (Hughes 338)
Hughes writes a particularly intimate stanza, relating the player’s lips to honey and ecstasy, two seemingly sensual details. The use of repetition of the line “From the trumpet at his lips” emphasizes the trumpet players lips as a physical feature, almost sexualizing him though Hughes intends to speak of his music. Hughes parallels honey with ecstasy, bridging the gap between sweetness and lustfulness to draw attention to the desirability of the trumpet player. Hughes portrays the trumpet player as an exceptionally strong, masculine figure, but writing from the female subjectivity does not eliminate the probability that Hughes shares this same-sex desire (Donnelly). Hughes, as a gay black male, undermines traditional gender expectations by exploring the masculinity of another male, thus affirming that men should be able to admire other men without fear of scrutiny. Yet, Hughes understood the repercussions of coming out, which is why he hid behind a female persona (Roessel). Additionally, Hughes explored concepts of desire, further elaborating on the allure of the trumpet player who reminisces of years on slaves ships and reflects on his new life as a performer:
That is longing for the moon
Where the moonlight's but a spotlight
In his eyes,
That is longing for the sea
Where the sea's a bar-glass
Sucker size. (Hughes 338)
Hughes repetition of the word “desire” not only describes the appeal of the trumpet player, but also the desires of the trumpet player. Hughes also uses enjambment to allow a rhythm and flow into the next line, thus connecting the word “desire” with the literal material that the trumpet player desires. Hughes disputes notions of heteronormativity by writing of strong male bodies, as seen by his provocative writing (Donnelly). Many questioned his sexuality due to his suggestive syntax and same-sex subjects, yet Hughes refused to be defined as sexual orientation, thus creating a myriad of layers to his writing and a great level of uncertainty and curiosity of what perspective he writes from.

Likewise, Hughes integrates his erotic voice in comments on cultural clashes and racial discrimination. Not only does Hughes comment on the attitudes towards black Americans, he also analyzes the racial subjugation of mixed race people, who are often not included by either race of their genetic makeup. In his poem “Mulatto,” Hughes uses a fairly provocative voice to combine oppression with innocence when describing the discrimination faced by a young mixed race boy:

What's a body but a toy?
Juicy bodies
Of nigger wenches
Blue black
Against black fences.
O, you little bastard boy,
What's a body but a toy? (Hughes 100)
Here, Hughes sexualizes the young boy by asking whether bodies are nothing but toys. Hughes objectifies the young boy to portray the thoughts of the common people: that the mulatto boy is worthless. Hughes’s erotic voice in the use of seductive syntax, like “juicy bodies” and “toy,” questions the boy’s innocence, maintaining that many view people who are traditionally seen as inferior (women, latinos, blacks, etc.) as nothing but objects for sex or labor. These inferior groups are stripped of their innocence from a young age, instantly being either sexualized or made into objects of labor. Hughes portrays the loss of innocence of these minority groups with his objectifying questions and diction. Later in the poem, Hughes hints to his hidden sexuality by reintroducing his obsession with dark bodies, like he did in his poem “Trumpet Player.” However, rather than exploring the desirability of these bodies, he analyzes the injustices that mulattos face for not being “pure”:
The Southern night is full of stars,
Great big yellow stars.
O, sweet as earth,
Dusk dark bodies
Give sweet birth
To little yellow bastard boys.

Git on back there in the night,
You ain't white. (Hughes 100)
Hughes’s fondness for dark bodies reappears in this stanza; however, this stanza focuses primarily on the cruelty mulattos face, not being accepted by either the white or black race. Too “yellow” to be black and too dark to be white, mulattos are often forced to face isolation. Hughes romanticizes the environment to parallel the yellow stars with the yellowness of the mulatto’s skin, ending the stanza with dialogue of a white man telling the boy he is not welcome. Hughes expertly combines suggestive syntax, dialogue, and parallelism to embody the hardships of a mixed race child. Hughes hoped to draw attention to these issues to bring an end to, not only racism against black people, but racism to those of multiple races (Roessel). Many assume that being half black brings about more privileges and less discrimination; however, such is not the case because mixed race children are often not welcomed by either group, which Hughes portrays brilliantly.

Lastly, Hughes demonstrates the wonder of one’s sexuality to reinforce the fact that people should not be defined by their sexual or gender identification. Many people profile others by their sexuality, becoming the only thing they can see. In Hughes’s poem “Café: 3 a.m.,” he questions a female’s sexuality, profiling her as either one thing or the other:

But God, Nature,
or somebody
made them that way.

Police lady or Lesbian over there?
Where? (Hughes 406)
Hughes presents the question about this police lady’s sexuality, and his strategic syntax with the word “or” maintains that people profile this woman as a police lady or a lesbian. At first glance, this woman is a police lady, but once her sexuality is known, the only thing people see is the fact that she is a lesbian. Hughes presents a social commentary regarding the view on members of the LGBTQ community, maintaining that once one’s different sexuality is known, they are defined by them. Hughes parallels the questions about his own sexuality in that of the police lady’s, with people constantly wondering whether he is gay or straight. Much of the reason Hughes was hesitant to come out was because he did not want to be profiled by his sexuality, which is what he presents in “Café: 3 a.m.” (Roessel). This police lady is described by her sexuality, or perceived sexuality, but the question Hughes presents is why people are defined by their sexual preferences. Earlier in the poem, Hughes presents a commentary on detectives that ties in to the dialogue of observers wondering whether the police lady is a lesbian:
Detectives from the vice squad
with weary sadistic eyes
spotting fairies.
some folks say. (Hughes 406)
In this poem, Hughes states that many view detectives as “degenerates,” or people with a lack of moral qualities and empathy. Then later in the poem, the observers wonder if the police lady is a lesbian, possibly implying that people may correlate homosexuals with degenerates, or those lacking certain qualities that “normal,” heterosexuals have. Hughes comments on the negative views of homosexuals and the fact that many people classify them as different and not normal. Such ties with his commentary on racial discrimination because both people of different races and members of the LGBTQ community are only seen as what they are or identify as, and not who they are as human beings. All of his commentary connects back to who he is as a person: a gay black male. Characterizing two of the most discriminated groups, Hughes, hiding his sexuality, writes about the subjugation of blacks and homosexuals in a sheltered way, enhancing the layers of his writing infinitely (Donnelly).

Langston Hughes writes of the struggles faced by minority groups in Harlem Renaissance era America from the perspective of a closeted black male. Throughout a number of his works, Hughes questions traditional notions of masculinity, innocence, and sexuality in cultural commentaries that integrate oppression on the basis of both race and sexuality. Hughes already faced backlash for being a black male in the early and mid 20th century, but an understanding of the judgment and adversity faced by homosexuals led him to conceal his true sexuality his whole life. Being black was something he could not hide, but sexuality is often times internal, something Hughes could hide from the world. Unfortunately dying of prostate cancer in his mid-sixties, Hughes left a monumental legacy in black literature on top of being a primary force driving the Harlem Renaissance. By hiding his sexuality, Hughes amplified the quality and intricacy of his literature, creating large levels of ambiguity and room for interpretation that scholars of all sexual orientations and races can debate upon.

Works Cited

Donnelly, Andrew. "Langston Hughes on the DL." College Literature, vol. 44, no. 1, 2017, p. 30+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 3 Nov. 2017.

“Langston Hughes.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 1 Aug. 2016, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/langston-hughes.

Rampersad, Arnold and David Roessel, eds. 1994. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Knopf.

Roessel, David. "(James) Langston Hughes." American Writers, Retrospective Supplement 1, edited by A. Walton Litz and Molly Weigel, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998. Literature Resource Center. Accessed 10 Nov. 2017.

“The Harlem Renaissance.” U.S. History Online Textbook, Independence Hall Association, 2017, www.ushistory.org/us/46e.asp.