How Langston Hughes Taught Us To See Fascism Today, Back Then

The acclaimed Black poet’s words on fascism abroad can enlighten
those still trying to see the beginnings of it today.

Langston Hughes. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

As we enter into the third week(I know, it feels MUCH longer than
that) of the current administration of the 45th President, Donald
Trump, it seems that there is a daily attack on the sensibilities of
the American public inflicted by the White House. The policies and
legislation put forth thus far paint a grim picture that is populism
veering across the lines into fascism. But even as it seems somewhat
unprecedented, this has been present in the world before. Among
the voices from the past who have pointed out these malevolent
methods and moods is none other than the great Black American
poet and journalist, Langston Hughes. In this case, the platform
Hughes used isn’t poetry — but one of his autobiographies, I Wonder
As I Wander
. And being that it’s Black History Month, it’s more
timely than ever.

Dustjacket facsimile for I Wonder As I Wander(Photo Credit: www.dustjackets.com)

I happened to read I Wonder As I Wander back in 1996, after being
given a copy of The Ways Of White Folks from a friend. I wanted to
learn more about this sterling figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the
man who seemed to stand at the edges of my consciousness growing
up through the little I had the chance to learn about him in high
school. The autobiography, published in 1956, captures Langston as
he set out upon the road to claiming his destiny as a writer. The reader
joins him on his travels throughout the United States and across the
globe through Cuba, Haiti, the Soviet Union, Korea, Japan and finally
into Spain at the height of the Civil War there. Hughes speaks of his
travels as if he was sitting across from you at a table in your favorite
pub, with one hand wrapped around a tumbler of whiskey and muted
lights above the table. It’s an engrossing read, one that I picked up
again in the past couple of weeks only to be struck by how impactful
and prescient it is.

Hughes’ multifaceted persona is on full display here. Regarded as
revolutionary for his poetry that captured the breadth of the Black
experience in America, he writes about his observations of the cruelty
and absurdity of racism in the 1930’s as he tours the country on a
reading tour. He does so in a tone that strikes a balancing act between
irony and simple joy. Each situation and encounter is met and then
assessed directly but not treated lightly even though the tone at times
can be airy. The autobiography shines a light on the burgeoning fascism
in the world once he arrives in Korea and is trailed by detectives from
the Japanese police at the beginning of the sixth chapter, “Color Around
The Globe.” It isn’t until the section entitled “American, Go Home”
where his travels take on a more stark tone as he is brought in for
intense questioning by the police after being in Tokyo and visiting a
theater marked by the imperial government as subversive. Reading
this passage again made me think about the current struggle that the
media is now involved in with the White House and their incessant
need to depict any and all criticism of their actions as “fake news”.
In the section that closes that chapter, Hughes is sailing for Honolulu
and is catching up on reading Japanese newspapers when he makes
this observation:

“It seemed that the Korean subjects of Japan were in somewhat the
same position as Negroes in the United States in relation to newspaper
coverage. Seldom was anything good about Koreans mentioned, but
if one committed a crime, it was headlined with a racial identification
tag included.”

Remind you of anything recently? Like the president’s obsession with
Chicago? Or the attempts at justifying the travel ban that pointedly
affects Muslims from seven countries? This is in the years before
World War II would engulf the world, initiated by Nazi Germany &
Japan — two nations that rose up fueled by a rabid militarism and
fascism cultivated by eroding resistance and using stereotypes to
enable their foul deeds. Much like the aforementioned instances
and the fact that a prominent white supremacist has the ear of the
president today.

Later on in the book, Hughes accepts a job covering the Spanish Civil
War. In this section he makes it a point to depict every instance of La
Guerra, the three year conflict between the fascist military forces of
General Francisco Franco and the left-wing Republican government
in his time there. It is here where you gain not only a sense of the
sadism that Franco and his forces exhibited, but also of the supreme
resistance of the Spanish people throughout as well as the accounts
of those who came to fight with them against Franco’s forces. Accounts
that made the correlation between the struggle there and what they
were dealing with back in the States.

This is another tome that should be added to the armada of literature
many should refer to when dealing with the grubby authoritarian
policies and atmosphere of the current administration. I Wonder
As I Wander
will give you not only a better look at Langston Hughes
as a revolutionary figure, but a prophetic one.

Freelance writer. Author of 3 books of poetry. Raconteur. Queens is the county, Jamaica is the place.