Joseph Smith sells more books, but lacks his artistry.
Mark Twain is more frequently read, but he was no poet.
James Fennimore Cooper is one long series of adjectives.
Moby Dick is a great book, but Melville is not as consistently readable as Hughes.
A collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks is an excellent introduction to his work.
Hughes writes of how some white folks deal with the humanity of black people in their midst. Attitudes range from the Carraways, “benevolent” racists who are into the ways of black folks, to the story of plantation owner Colonel Thomas Norwood who cannot acknowledge his love for his black common-law wife or their children. The end of that story is one of the most heartbreaking an American can read.
If racism and race-based slavery was America’s original sin, Hughes demonstrates that racism and the legacy of slavery were alive and killing us in the middle of the last century. Conservative Christians know that history matters, ideas have consequences, and the wages of continued sin keep being death.
And while Hughes’s African-American characters may be harmed by the ways of (some) white folk, white folk do not govern the real lives of black folk. Mrs. Ellsworth may patronize her protégé Oceola, but Oceola lives her own life and creates her own art.
Hughes’s black folks are forced to deal with the white majority, and there is no easy triumph or “lessons” learned. Hughes presents characters that are human: white folk and black folk. All humans inherit bad and good ideas and all humans have the capacity to create, but no human can ever simply be an object of hate or even of pity. The young Arnie will not remain a “poor little black fellow,” but grows up to become a man.
The short stories are not hopeful in themselves, mostly ending bleakly, but there is hope in characters themselves. The racist is a man when he is a racist: a bad man. The African-American is no less a man when he succumbs to racial stereotypes, as some of Hughes’s characters do to survive, but he is an oppressed man. For Hughes, humanity—sheer cussed humanness—is always breaking out and defying the lies of the racialist.
Langston Hughes promotes the existence, not just the possibility, of African-American culture for itself. In his stories, the jazz and the renaissance of art in the big cities is not something for white folk to consume, but the creation of a people group, because they are a people group.
Black folk exist for black folk.
Hughes’s poetry, and his short stories, are full of allusions to Christianity. In his own life, Langston Hughes rejected Christianity and considered secular solutions—a few (like the Soviet Union) monstrously evil. Hughes’s imagination, however, remained haunted by Christian images and ideas. If he died without Jesus—and who can be sure of such things?—Hughes always had the story of Jesus in his mind and heart.
Christians failed Langston Hughes, even if Christ did not, but Hughes never lost faith in people, especially his people. I think, perhaps, he saw the image of God so plainly there that even his non-theism ended up God-haunted.
Hughes is, however, great enough that he cannot be pigeonholed or dismissed by such as I am. Hughes must be read, considered, and allowed to stand as a great author always to be considered and as a man who has a great deal to teach us.