Langston Hughes & Closeted Poetry

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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?

b2b

IV.

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.

V.

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.

VI.

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.

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23 responses to “Langston Hughes & Closeted Poetry

  1. A similiar thing happened to me when I told my mother that James Baldwin was gay. I thought everyone knew that, but I think that the sexual orientation of an iconic figure (especially when it is outside a perceived norm) is ignored so people can better relate. It’s a sad thing that such important details of an icon’s life are overlooked to make him more palatable to the masses.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. This is what happens when we try to universalize writers.

  3. My example is a much less case, but I told (similarly to shock) a friend that Dumbledore, from Harry Potter, was gay. It upset her a little. I didn’t have any feelings about J.K. Rowling revealing that information at first, I felt like his sexual orientation had very little to do with the books, but seeing how it makes people react, that people they like can actually be gay. That’s powerful stuff.

  4. BTW, Brother to Brother is mainly about Bruce Nugent, the only Harlem Renaissance figure who was out, and who wrote out. (In the movie, Bruce is homeless, which was never the case.) His poem in Fire!! was the first out gay writing in African-American history, 30 years before James Baldwin. The best of his work can be found in the fourth issue of Ganymede, three chapters from a 1930s novel about 1920 gay Harlem.

  5. When I taught Langston Hughes as a set, I waited until the last day to reveal he was gay. My high students fell in love with Night Funeral in Harlem and about 4 other works. They were surprised to learn he was gay, but they didn’t reject it. It’s as if his work had proved itself to them. I wanted to be bolder and show clips from Brother to Brother, but that would be too much for this crowd.

    Poets need to go back into elementary, secondary, and tertiary schools and share our favorite poets. The canon will almost always be white and male until we throw that out and create new canons for teachers and children.

    @John Stahle Have you read Smoke, Lillies, and Jade?

  6. Wow! Powerful stuff. I say we need another Renaissance in this era… anybody with me?

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  8. While I do actually believe Langston Hughes was gay, unfortunatley unlike Baldwin or Nugent, we can’t prove he was. Hughes never said so, no lovers have come forth etc… Even his main biographer denies his homosexuality. However, I believe he expressed it through his poems… But the world may never know for sure… 😥

  9. Everytime I’ve read any of Langston Hughes work it has left a powerful impression initially. This writer seem to allude that at first brother Hughes’ work was lacking until he found out about his sexual orientation. There is where I have a problem. Money and guns are neither good nor bad… However, literature is either good or bad, and it does not take learning of an author’s sexual orientation in order to determine whether a work is good or bad. There have been many gay authors who have contributed brilliant pieces of literature who remained in the closet. When you speak of one of the greatest literary figures in American history you do him an injustice by making this allusion. Hughes’ work stands on its own. The fact that he is gay or not is purely incidental.

  10. Sadly it was a teachable moment …when this person learns the truth one day he will have been taught that being gay must be shameful since you didn’t tell the truth. If we are lucky that “teachable moment” will only teach him that you are an inferior teacher

  11. he’s a great writer , he was reelly amazing . im doing a writing project on him 🙂

  12. What precisely was the point of telling a 14yr old that someone is gay? Are you saying it for shock value? No one here has slept with Mr Hughes or known him intimately enough to say that, it’s speculation. Let the students find out on their own from their own research if they must know. But teaching them all that then saying “Oh yeah it’s said he was homosexual”. You’re teachers. Grow up and teach and try not to keep injecting your opinions

  13. I genuinely appreciate this post as someone studying to be a high school teacher. I am fortunate enough to attend BGSU who has mandatory multicultural and queer lit classes for all wanna be English teachers. I am constantly amazed at how little I knew about sexuality when it comes to authors and how it opens up their work even more. Especially when discussing the way being a qpoc has shaped an authors world view. Langston Hughes has always been a favorite of mine and I am glad learning more about him helped you to see his writing in a different way.

  14. I was really disturbed by this post. As a black lesbian who seemingly has to fight (against) stereotypes within the community, this post really illuminates on a humane flaw – not just a “hetero” one . It’s disturbing that you did not “like” langston hughes until after you realized he was gay. People like to see themselves in their heros no matter who they are….

  15. If he wanted to be gay then let him have been it, it does not matter anymore. -_-

  16. What I really hate is when people say “why would you tell a 14-year old that someone is gay” as if you were revealing that someone were an ax murderer. We don’t hesitate one moment to declare someone’s heterosexuality to a 14 year old. Why should homosexuality be any different? Want proof? Spend 1 hour of personal time with a straight person and you’ll know because they will say “my wife” or “my husband” or “my gf/bf.” Although today its more difficult to tell because of gay marriage. But straight people don’t hesitate for one moment to let you know they are straight. And as someone else said, it’s as pertinent a fact as race. If you read a poem and interpreted it and then found out the poet was African-American with all the history that brings, I can guarantee the poem will have additional, if not different meanings on the 2nd read. Same with someone’s sexuality.

  17. My son is in 2nd grade and is doing research on him now. I came across this while helping him out and just want to say, that I think you didn’t need to reveal his sexuality the way you did, as to shock the teen or one up him, although I totally get how it could happen. I just think too much weight is put on our sexuality, our race, gender, religion, and not on our gifts, insight, righteousness and truth. Not to say you must ignore these facts, but to push them to the forefront with no real objective outside of marginalization and classification is just weak, and we should all become more mature and stop this if we want a world free of ignorance, prejudice and discrimination.

  18. As someone who knew he was gay when he was five years old I adjusted to the fact that I was normal to me, but different to my parents and the other children around me. As someone who was half Irish and black I adjusted to intra racial discrimination through the strength my mother gave me and appreciated that my step father did his best to love me as his own , though I’m sure my light skin, freckles and reddish brown hair made it difficult at times. As some dealing with this growing up in deep South during the fifties and sixties I learned to be not ashamed of who I was but grow a hide of as thick as an elephant’s without becoming bitter or mean. I developed a very masculine persona to blend in to avoid being punished for loving the look, feel and sight of men. My pain was expressed in my writings which I kept private. At 14 I made the decision that one day I would not blend in to avoid my secret being found out and at 21 while on active duty I stopped lying. I made my statement by phrasing answers that were always gender neutral whenever possible and was determined to get my honorable discharge without having to game as much as my peers who feared the humiliation of being found out. When confronted by mean spirited jerks who wanted an answer one way or another I confronted them with why were they asking? Were they attracted to the curve of my behind or the bulge in trousers? While they stood in shock I walked away. My hero and inspiration was Master Huges who through his poetry thought me to fight through the mind. His works describe his battle with double segregation, his sexuality and his race. Teacher do not punish yourself for not taking advantage of the “moment.” You could not teach it’s lesson until you had learned it yourself.

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  20. THIS TOO SHALL PASS WHEN “WE” LEARN (FOR THE TEN THOUSANDTH TIME),TO NOT JUDGE ANYONE AND FOCUS ON THE PROJECT AT HAND.

  21. Patrice D. Lurks

    I’ve known this for years. My mother is an educator and would teach her students a lessnoon Mr.Hughes and the very lt day(withstandswithparents approval) she’d tell them that it was speculated that he was gay…by this time, most of the students had come to some sort of appreciation for his works and while they were “amazed” that he was homosexual, it really didn’t matter because they felt they knew him in a way.

  22. We are doing a paper on Langston Hughes and our teacher told us that we have to put in there that he is gay. I have looked everywhere and can not find anything that point blank tells that he is gay. I don’t want to put it in there if I can not find proof. Where do I find it?

  23. Am I missing some major point here? Why must you put in your paper that Hughes was gay. What does it matter. We are nearing a societal point that we enjoy (or do not enjoy) certain poetry and sexual orientation is irrelevant. Why must you tell a student that a literary figure was gay. To me that is backwards.

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