Last week, I told one of my 9th grade students that Langston Hughes was gay. The student stood up, panic-stricken, and pleaded, “Please don’t say something like that, Mr. Jones. That’s not funny.” He paused for a moment, then added. “He’s one of my idols.” None of the other students noticed the conversation, distracted by their own projects & discussions. And the student and I went about our separate ways. I should’ve have turned it into teaching “moment” but I didn’t. The student wasn’t ready, and – frankly – neither was I.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I hated Langston Hughes in high school, but I wasn’t a big fan. His poetry was too simple & too concerned with race. Though I didn’t know the word at the time, I felt that Langston Hughes was passe. Save him for Black History Month & spare me another recitation of Dream Deferred. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.
My sophomore year of college I watched “Brother to Brother” a beautiful independent film inspired by the life of poet Bruce Nugent. It was the first time I had heard of Nugent & his classic work “Smoke, Lilies, & Jade.” It was also the first time I had heard that Langston Hughes slept with men. The movie alludes to a fleeting relationship between the two poets. Needless to say, I went to the library that same day & started re-reading Hughes’ work. New interpretations & metaphors revealed themselves to me, then the poems mocked: Why hadn’t I seen it all along?
Why am I telling you this? (Really, that question is aimed at myself, more than you.) Because, for better or worse, when I was 13, 14, 15 years old, I went to books to learn everything I could about being gay. I knew I was gay already. I had felt this identity churning inside me long before I had a name for it, but the life.. How was I supposed to live the life? That’s what I was reading to learn about. I stole my mother’s copy of “Another Country” by James Baldwin because I was embarrassed for her to know I was reading it. Soon after that, I stole another one of her books, a novel by the late E. Lynn Harris. Again & again, I returned to these books looking.. looking for my own face.
Again, why am I telling you this? (This time, I really am talking to you.) As someone who happily works with college freshman and, occasionally high school students, I cannot ignore the disservice we to do our students by white-washing & “straightening” the literature we present to them. A poet’s biography isn’t the whole story, but it’s often a valid part of the story. To teach “The Bell Jar” without discussing the realities faced by American women in the 1950s and 60s is to lose out on a great discussion. To teach Langston Hughes without giving any consideration to his sexuality is a foolish as ignoring his race.
And so I return to that student: to the look in his eyes, the way his voice seemed to fill with gravity & hurt. I can’t remember what started the conversation in the first place, only that I said it to shock him a bit, to prove that I know something that he didn’t. I haven’t shared this experience with you to come to the point of commentary. Commentary implies that I’ve made my mind up. I don’t even have an argument, except to say: Our students aren’t getting the whole story, and perhaps neither are we.