[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #2: Langston Hughes, Religious Thinker

Wednesday, Nov 2, 2016


Podcast Transcript:

0:00) [background music]

Eddie: Welcome. My, my, Eddie S. Glaude Jr. and I'm the chair of the Department of African-American Studies at Princeton University. Ah today, Wallace Best, Professor of Religion and African-American Studies and one of my dear colleagues and author of "Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915 to 1952", sits down with me to talk about his forth coming book, "Langston's Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem". Welcome, Wallace. 

Wallace:Thank you, Eddie. I’m very glad to be here.

Eddie: So, this is exciting that "Langston's Salvation" is here. It's about to hit the bookstores. Um talk a bit about how you came to write the book. Ah, I mean this is a shift from a focus on Black Chicago...

Wallace: Yes.

Eddie: To a particular figure the Bard of Harlem.

Wallace: Absolutely. Well, it is a shift but this book actually grew out of the first one and a very very ah curious particular way. Um in my research on Chicago, looking at the transitions and the religious culture there among black southern migrants, the name Langston Hughes kept coming up- Langston Hughes. Ah Langston was there. Langston um was in Chicago on ah ah at various points in his early career. He didn't like it very much and he wrote about the fact that he didn't like Chicago very much. It was too big for him um. But while he was there during ah several visits um he would attend the churches there. Particularly as he called them the gospel churches. He was absolutely fascinated by storefront churches, by the gospel churches on the south side of Chicago. He was particularly enamored of ah Clarence Cobbs' church (2:00) and he went there often. This is one of the things that my....

Eddie: Where's Clar- remind the read- ah listeners where where Clarence Clob- Cobbs' church.

Wallace: Clarence Cobbs' church, he built a a religious empire of sorts down on Wabash Avenue.

Eddie: [chuckles] Exactly. 

Wallace: Ah ah the First Church of Deliverance Spiritual church. A denomination that was fairly new on the scene ah in the ah the pantheon of religion in the south side of Chicago. Ah that that that world, that new sacred order that I talked about. Clarence Cobbs was huge and just about every gospel artist that was emerging in the day ah had to get to Cobbs' church. If you hadn't been to Clarence Cobbs' church, you probably um nobody probably you- you probably weren't well known as a gospel artist if you weren't at Clarence Cobb's church. So, anyway this place was a dynamic wonderful place and Hughes went there and he talked about it. He talked about it. He actually talked about it one time he was there in in the ah in the 1940's where he went to Catholic mass in the morning and then as a lot of people did, he went to Caren- Clarence Cobbs' church in the evening. And he wrote about that in his diary which um I say diary but actually Hughes didn't keep a diary as much as he kept notes on his life and um and he recorded that experience on how it was wonderful. How the people ah were shouting and singing and and mind you gospel music was relatively new in the early 1940's. And so this was a new genre of music that was really taking the city and I would say the country by storm by this time. Hughes was taken. He absolutely loved it. 

Eddie: That's a fascinating just to position ah the the the the sedate nature of a Catholic mass...

Wallace: Yes. [chuckles]

Eddie: And this and the rocking rhythm of a childhood club- cub. 

Wallace: That's that's that's black chur- that's black church in Chicago [chuckles] in the 1940's.

Eddie: What was his attraction to Catholic mass?

Wallace: He loved the ritual. He said that. He loved the ritual. Well, you know, his father ah left the United States (4:00) um and um rejected America and all that it stood for. He went to Mexico and Hughes would visit his father um on occasion. And in fact, it was on his way to visit his father ah that's when he wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" as he crossed the Mississippi river on a train to go visit his estranged father. Well, while there he attended Catholic churches. His father had some friends. Ah they were all Catholic and they took Hughes church and he loved it. First of all, he was enamored by the ritual. He was enamored by the ah the buildings themselves. He thought they were very beautiful but there was something about the Catholic ritual itself that he loved. He was attracted to and that served him well when he got to Chicago as a young man because he had the opportunity then to take ah this one woman. I don't know how he came across this one woman but he would take her. She was a blind woman that he took to mass ah almost every Sunday, right. And so he wrote in- he had two- two ah autobiographies. One written in 1940 and the other one 1956. He talks extensively about those experiences of ah being attracted to Catholic ritual. And so, I depict him in the book as a church goer because one of the things, I think that maybe surprising to people is that Langston Hughes was an avid church goer. He was someone who resolutely refuse to join any church but he went to church all the time and he had a very eclectic taste. So, to take you back to that one Sunday in 1942 where he was going to a black Catholic church in the morning and then Clarence Cobbs at night that was pretty usual for him.

Eddie: Wow.

Wallace: And so, in my research for ah ah on black southern migrants in Chicago, his name kept coming up because he recorded these experiences and they're all found in his ah personal papers which are at the Beinecke Library at Yale. So, there I am ah studying um black southern migrants and their impact on (6:00) Chicago and to my surprise, I would have to say, Langston Hughes had a lot to say about that period. And so, the book actually grows out of my encounter with Langston Hughes. During the first book because his perspectives on Chicago helped shape some of what I said about that culture.

Eddie: Right. I mean, I see the connection, right, when you you do the- when you situate him in in Harlem. And you you describe Harlem as um ah how would- how would one say as as a city of religion and churches. And so, Langston is the quintessential new negro as you- so so talk about Harlem and you do a lot of work of kind of excavating and and detailing. The religious landscape that that that Langston Hughes created and...

Wallace: And I do that because um to my surprise it hadn't been done before. Ah there's a lot of work on Harlem as we know. There's a lot of work on the culture development of Harlem. Ah a lot of development on the leisure culture of Harlem, ah even worked on the architecture, ah just the development of black Harlem in general. What I did not find was a lot being written on ah the development of the ah the spiritual development of the place itself or its religious development and here I'm using those terms interchangeably. Ah so, in my research, what I found with Hughes was his encounter as as he had encounter the religious culture of Chicago. He encountered the religious culture in Harlem. He wrote quite a lot about the religious culture in Harlem. So, in a way as I am trying to put him as I was trying to put him in a particular context he helped me out. Quite a bit.

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: Because Hughes left a lot of social commentary about (8:00) ah Harlem in general but about Harlem's religious culture which was very rich and dynamic. Ah years ago when I was thinking about writing Chicago, I was actually thinking about doing a comparative project of Chicago and Harlem. I'm very glad I didn't do that. [laughter] It would've been daunting, awesome and probably um I would still be writing that book right- perhaps right- right now but that culture was so rich and so dynamic. Everything from the little storefront churches as you found in Chicago to grandiose ah established ah ah Churches like ah Abyssinin- Abyssinian Baptist Church and St. Philip's. Just as he had in Chicago, Hughes availed himself of that culture. And in fact, he went to St. Philip's so much that I've interviewed people there that are convinced he was a member.

Eddie: Wow.

Wallace: I'm sure he was not a member.

Eddie: Right [chuckles].

Wallace: But that's how often he went to that church. So, I depict him as um a public intellectual about religious matters in some regards. Because he wrote very much about, often in critical tones, about the culture of of Harlem but he was also appreciative of this culture as well and he's a- he availed himself of it too. He was enamored. Absolutely enamored of Father Divine for instance. Who had one of his ah missions in Harlem. Perhaps one of more vibrant ones was in Harlem. He'd attempt- he went to Father Divine's peace mission in Harlem quite frequently and he wrote about that. He never actually got to meet Father Divine but when Father Divine died he wrote one of the most moving pieces that I've ever read about ah Father Divine. And he published it. Because this was someone who in his words ah had a tremendous and positive impact on Harlem. In Harlem's religious culture. (10:00) So, Hughes was very very much engaged with Harlem's rich and dynamic religious culture. He went to church all the time and he wrote extensively about Harlem's religious culture.

Eddie: So, I mean, this is really really important in so many different ways, I mean, in in in in the biography- the intellectual biography is going to intervene in the scholarship in a particular sort of way because ah and by my reading um, you know, the religion isn't kind of placed in the foreground and and and how people have rendered, right, the life and and the work of Langston Hughes. So, how are we to understand, Wallace, the role or place of religion in Hughes' overall aesthetic? 

Wallace: Well, the thing, I think that's most important to keep in mind and it's a very simple thought, Eddie. Religion was very important to Langston Hughes. Now, one of the many ways, scholars, lay readers understand Hughes as someone who was anti-religious or opposed to religion. Um that's absolutely not true and it's important to know that it's not true. Because I- I think to- to approach Hughes as someone who is anti-religious is to fundamentally misunderstand him. And I think it's a- to fundamentally misunderstand much of his work both the work of of of- as he called them ah of a religious nature but also that work that is not obviously of a religious nature because as Hughes said once, "Nothing I've ever written is anti-religious."

Eddie: Right, right. I saw that.

Wallace: Right?

Eddie: Yeah. 

Wallace: So, what he means by that is everything I've written is in some way informed by reli- by religion and in some cases greatly reform- informed by religion. So, I think part of what I'm trying to do with this book is to create a space to read (12:00) Hughes religiously because I think that's perhaps the clearest lens into his overall intellectual and artistic project is to understand him religiously and understand the importance of religion um in his work. Because it was absolutely foundational, he talked about it. Ah he talked about his ah failed ah salvation experience at age 13 for instance as one of the most- as one of the foundational moments in his life. He talked about it.

Eddie: Why don't you recount that? I mean, I know folks have read "The Big Sea" but why don't you talk about?

Wallace: I'd love to. I mean it's it's [laughter] you know, the book is called "Langston's Salvation" um because it is based on that vignette in his 1940 ah autobiography, "The Big Sea" where he talks about his failed salvation experience. Ah I think those are my terms but they're based on um the way he characterized that experience and here's the experience. Here's wer- here's what happened. His grandmother, Mary Langston, had died. This was in Lawrence, Kansas. Ah he was ah at that time ah somewhere between 11 and 13, the experience happened when he was 13. While he was living with ah some very good friends of the family, Mary and James Reed who had been living in Lawrence, Kansas for many years and they had established a home on New York Avenue there. Well, the church St. Luke AME was just down the street. Mary ah Mary Reed in particular was very- was a very devout Christian and one of the things that she did was to take Hughes to church very often and he talks about this. Well, one of those times was doing the church's week's long ah annual revival and on a particular night and at- you know, a particular night and this is- this is um actually quite common in some black Baptism Methodist churches where there was a night (14:00) ah during the revival. When you were to bring the young lambs to the fold. So, there they were, all the- all the young folks on the mourners' bench and the- the saints are all around wailing and moaling- moaning and praying for their salvation. Hughes and his friend Wesley were the last two on the mourner's bench. Everybody had gone forth to become saved at one point, Hughes ah- at one point ah Wesley looks over to Hughes and he swears. He says, "God dammit, man. Let's just go up and be saved." 

Eddie: [laughter] So, he's tired, right?

Wallace: [laughter] And he was tired. It was hot. It's like hot Kansas night and Hughes just sat there because he- as he recalled, "I was told that at the moment of salvation, I would see Jesus. I would hear him. I would feel him." He said, "Nothing had happened to me at that point." So, he had resolved to just sit there until he saw Jesus. At that moment, Wesley goes up. He goes up and the church is rejoicing because Wesley has gone up to receive salvation and then Lans- Langston is the only one left on the mourner's bench and you can imagine. What this mut- must feel like to a thirteen year old. He's sitting there and the saints are wailing and praying and they're pleading to him, "Won't you come? Won't you come?" So, finally he does conceded. He goes forth to receive salvation. The church goes up because they're so overjoyed that the last young lamb has come to receive salvation. Well, later that night ah at the home of ah Mary and James Reed, Hughes is in his bedroom and he is heard by Mary Reed ah he's- she hears him crying and he's, you know, quite overcome. She took that as evidence that he had truly been saved. But what Hughes writes in his autobiography is that, "I wasn't crying because I had been saved. (16:00) I was crying because I had not seen Jesus and I had lied about it afterward."

Eddie: Hmm...Wow and you read this experience, right, as central?

Wallace: Absolutely central. What I say is that almost everything he writes about religion afterwards including his poems and short stories ah whether in terms of framing or discursively points back to that form...

Eddie: To that experience.

Wallace: Formative moment. It was absolutely a profound moment in his life and he talked about it on various occasions for the rest of his life.

Eddie: Right. I mean, so you you you lay out all of this, I mean, this evidence of the- the centrality of religion to his aesthetic imagination. Um and we see over and over again the kind of residual effect of this experience of St. Luke's. Um and and and so, I mean, over 80 poems. Right?

Wallace: Yes. Yes.

Eddie: Were religion. You even call them the gospel years. [laughter] Yes.

Wallace: [laughter] Yes.

Eddie: Now but what do we make of "Goodbye Christ" I mean that's- that's the poem, right. I mean and there is a sense in which Hughes is is this figure who is, is a dalliance with Communism here that, that, that is pronounced in that poem, right. Maybe it's at the heart of a certain kind of reading of him as anti-religious or atheist or agnostic or...

Wallace: Oh no. It says there. It's central to that and in fact um ah as I state in the book ah after Hughes wrote "Goodbye Christ" In 1932, most people assumed from that that he was atheist and that he had rejected Christ and Christianity in particular. Ah the poem haunted him for the rest of his life. Um what I say though that the best and closest to reading of that poem does not suggest that he was rejecting Christ or that he was atheist. In fact, (18:00) I suggested that's a wrong reading of that poem. Now, let me say this. That poem did grow from and was ah central to ah at the core of some very very important transitions in his own life. I don't depict Hughes as someone who was unchanging. Um that was a point when he was very much sympathetic to leptus causes, ah very much sympathetic to communist causes. Now, that is not to say that ah "Goodbye Christ" did not reflect ah a moment in Hughes' life when he was the furthest removed from the institution of the church and perhaps at his lowest point in terms of any kind of religious belief. In fact, I think it was but I think reading that poem does not, to me at least, suggest someone who is rejecting Christ or the church. Many people agreed with Hughes when he said it was actually a call to the church to live up to its own principles, right?

Eddie: Oh, I know that by- from experience, right?

Wallace: [chuckles] Right. 

Eddie: We were like church is dead [chuckles] thing. It's like that..

Wallace: Exactly. Right.

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: And so, and also there is something, I think a lot of people missed even in the language of "Goodbye Christ" to bid Christ goodbye was already an acknowledgement of the presence and existence of Christ and Hughes made that point again and again and again. He even had to make that point in 1953 when he was called before the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations and Joseph McCarthy largely because of that poem. "Goodbye Christ" which a poem which Hughes wrote very very quickly while he was in um the Soviet Union in 19 ah 32. Which he never intended to publish and it's quite mysterious in some regards, how that (20:00) poem became published because he wrote it there and in within months it showed up in the Negro Worker and after the Negro Worker it gets picked up by the Baltimore Afro-American, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender and it gets ah widely released but Hughes himself and he kept reiterating this throughout his career. He never intended to publish it. Ah why he wrote it um is also a bit of a mystery although the context of the Soviet Union was inspirational and that's by the way why a lot of people ah took its meaning that it was Hughes' ah statement against God and against religion. Because he was in quote the god- "Godless communist country" and so forth and so on. But ah the poem is up- the reason why there is a chapter- an entire chapter on it is because the poem is absolutely crucial. This poem perhaps is one of the most important poems Hughes ever wrote and it's curious because it's a poem that throughout his life he tried to distance himself from. Ah he tried to distance himself from and while he was being and I would say this, humiliated before the Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations in 1953 who brought him there largely because they had come upon this poem. And mind you by this time, it had been, you know, over 20 years. But they brought him before this committee and humiliated him to the point where Hughes ended up on the second day of ah of of of the interrogation. He completely ah disavowed the poem altogether. And ah it was it's a very very sad moment because he had at one point called, even though he had been trying to distance himself from the poem, he had at one point told one of his friends that he actually thinks it's (22:00) one of the better poems he'd ever written.

Eddie: Wow. So, you make this distinction and I think this is important as we kinda think about ah "Goodbye Christ" and we think about your insistence on on on centralizing ah Hughes' thinking about religion. You make this distinction between he was thinking about religion and being religious. 

Wallace: Right.

Eddie: And you wanna say that- that you argue. You actually make the claim that Hughes thinks theologically. In interesting sorts of ways. What do you- and and I- and I see this distinction that you're making ah to be a broader part of a broader ah historiographical intervention in terms of how people. Ah tell the story of African-American religion or how we imagine African-American religious studies. So, what do you mean? What- what is the significance of making the distinction that Hughes thinking about religion as opposed to being religious.

Wallace: I'm glad you ask that because uh, if there is one thing I want people to come away, away with, with uh, having read this book, uh, is this characterization of Hughes as a thinker about religion. Um, not a religious thinker; um, someone who's thinking about religion. And I say that because when I think historiographically about uh, African-American religion, I would suggest that thinkers about religion have not been given their due. Hughes never considered himself a religious person and I don't call him a religious person in this book. Um, although, I think he had served religious practices or practices he would call religious but at every opportunity to be (24:00) clear about his own religion, his personal religion or his private religion, he did not take that opportunity.

Eddie: The poem in personal, right?

Wallace: Right. Right.

Eddie: Yeah. Right. Right.

Wallace: He did not. He did not. So, so what one should from, from that is Hughes foremost wanted us to read and to encounter and to engage his thinking about religion. Um, I resisted uh, characterizing this book as um,an intellectual history because I think it's doing more than that. But it is on some level, Eddie, about this poet's ideas. His ideas about religion. Um, and I, and what I wanted to do was give that some space in the way which we could talk about African-American religion. What is it mean to write a book like this from someone who perhaps was not religious, right? What value do you give to the religious thinking in the religious thought of someone who's not religious? And Hughes is not the only one. Many of the new Negro artists uh, during the Harlem Renaissance in particular uh, wrote about religion, not necessarily from the point of view of faith and belief. And so, part of the project here is to explore the thinking of, explore the thinking of those who wrote about religion but not, not necessarily from the point of view and the perspectives of personal belief. How do we value that? How does, how does that add to our understanding of what constitutes African-American religion?

Eddie: Right. It's certain, it certainly de-centers the, the kind of Protestant centered story of, of, of --

Wallace: Absolutely.

Eddie: -- black religious life that, that we're so, that we're so used to. (26:00) And it, it, it uh, in a, in a, interestingly perverse way, it takes that, that moment in, in Benjamin Mays' Negros God, where he talks about these folks who are unchurched, the kind of expanding uh, category of these folks who are non-believers. It actually uses them as a way to interrogate some of the essentralist, you know, some of the cri- critical assumptions.

Wallace: He called it, the new territories.

Eddie: Exactly. 

Wallace: Right? This is the new territory of, of, of writing, he called. As early as 1938, he's, he's actually sort of uh, indicating a new way in which uh, we can think about uh, a black religion and the way it's written. So, it has implications for history and historiography and the other thing too, I, I wanted to explore the idea, could there be alternative sources of authority, right? Who gets to write about, who gets to speak authoritatively about African-American religion? One of the things I'm suggesting is Hughes and others have been shut down or shut out of this history and discussion because they were not religious or not obviously religious. And so, and in fact, some of the um, some of the scholars who are writing about Hughes due, Hughes' lifetime, dismissed uh, works like, Goodbye Christ and particularly the works of the 1930. But even the, the wonderfully rich depictions of black religious culture that he wrote during the 1920's, they dismissed it, not because they saw that the, the poetry um, had no spiritual resonances but they thought that Hughes had no spirituality.

Eddie: Right. [laughter]

Wallace: And so, and so therefore if Hughes was not a religious person, it's, it was quite simple, if Hughes was not a religious person, then we can give no um, credibility to his thoughts about religion. What I'm doing is countering that and suggesting absolute, absolutely we can do that because (28:00) not only was he was, not only was he a thinker about religion, uh, he was a thinker of about religion with uh, uh great astuteness and uh, great depth.

Eddie: Yeah and this is his insight, I mean, this is -- I really found this part of the book really fascinating, right. Because there is this, this insistence on understanding Hughes' aesthetic, right, as deeply uh, bound up in the ways in which he's thinking about religion. So there's the kind of -- and then that has an effect of how we read him. Um, and then, once you established that, he becomes this interesting figure to intervene in the broad historiographical question, right?

Wallace: Absolutely, yes.

Eddie: And this is really fascinating because here, you, you, not only are you de-centering a kind of Afro-Protestant biased in the story of African-American religion, you're also speaking to the historiography of American religious liberalism.

Wallace: Right.

Eddie: Say a little bit about that.

Wallace: Yes, well, that was uh, a discovery of mine. Um, in my attempt to you know, books try to do two things. Try to say, what is and what is not? Um, I was pretty clear on what was not [laughter] but in answering the question what is, that was difficult. So if I wanted to um, characterize what Hughes was actually doing, what were those thoughts about religion and what ran through those thoughts? What was consistently running through those, that thinking about religion? When I began to notice the wind which a lot of what he was writing about uh, connected in very, very interesting ways with the overall project of American religious liberalism. Um, I do not go so far to say that Hughes himself was a religious liberal. I stopped myself there (30:00) because I didn't, I didn't think it was necessary to, to say that. But I thought it was necessary um, to, to notice ways in which what really fired his imagination, his religious imagination, were um, many of the same things firing the religious imagination of religious liberals in terms of notions of uh, uh, the, the social gospel, notions of transcendence, notions of mystery, uh, historical criticism. It's all their in Hughes and, and in fact I come, very, very close to calling him -- and I think at one point perhaps I do call him a humanist -- that's clear to me. If I were to call Hughes anything, a religious characterization, it would be a humanist. He absolutely believe in that project. He used that language. The only thing he didn't do, of course, was call himself a humanist. But that project in terms of actually seeing the primacy of the human uh, and the centrality of the human experience in religion was absolutely essential to him and almost word for word um, discursively, he was fully, fully, fully reflect -- his works fully reflected, uh, you know humanism. And so he's, he, he, he connects himself even his associations with people who work fully in line with American religious liberalism.

Eddie: Yeah. Yeah. So I mean this is really, really fascinating. It just reminds me, you know, I know that uh, I know that uh, Langston and Jimmy Baldwin had a rather tense relationship.

Wallace: Yes. 

Eddie: But I, I -- it's just the, the way in which they, they, they stand in relation to their religious formation is really interesting here. Um, and you know, it's a, it's an angle on, on Langston Hughes that, that obviously, no one is really kind of (32:00) explored until, until this book. But I have to ask you this question.

Wallace: All right.

Eddie: I mean, it's, it's, it's the elephant in the room.

Wallace: All right.

Eddie: Um, and, and it's a question that about  -- you know, there's, there's a re -- you know when we read Langston, you know, we see the imprimatur of, of, of Whitman and the free procem- we see Whitman everywhere. And, and now as you talk -- and, and, and, and those of us who read some of, some of the biographies and some autobiographies, there's a kind of evasiveness in, in Langston's way of being in the world that reminds one of the ambiguity uh, around what Whitman. So what is the relationship between religion and sexuality in Langston Hughes?

Wallace: Ah, yes.

Eddie: And you, you, you hit this in this really interesting way, Wallace.

Wallace: Well, first of all, let, let me, let me talk a bit about Hughes and Whitman --

Eddie: Yeah.

Wallace: And evasiveness. I'm so glad you brought that up. Um, one of my great regrets is an entire chapter I've written on Hughes and Whitman, did not make the book. Uh, The book was getting long and I had to make some decisions. I have a separate article coming out about that relationship. Not only the relationship with um, Whitman but also with Carl Sandburg.

Eddie: Sandburg, right.

Wallace: He called them both his guiding stars.

Eddie: Uh.

Wallace: And so what I argue in that chapter is that when Hughes called  Sandburg and Whitman his guiding stars, he didn't mean that just in terms of craft. It also meant that in terms of style of life.

Eddie: Uh.

Wallace: Hughes' evasiveness, Hughes gets his um, style and manner of the evasiveness partly from Whitman. Whitman, molded from him a way to be in the world to give (34:00) the world just enough and to be unclear in important ways as well. So, this, this way of -- and it's not about hiding as much as it's about constructing. Constructing your life in a way that suits you. Hughes was foremost an artist. I means this is a very much a way an artist would do this, and he gets that from Whitman. He had a very close attachment to Whitman and in fact, the story is told that on his way, his first trip abroad, he was on a ship and he is rejecting, um, his past life, he's rejecting his uh, education. So he's ceremoniously, throwing his books into the sea. He gets to the Leaves of Grass and he doesn't throw it in. 

Eddie: He can't do it. He can't do it.

Wallace: He can't do it.

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: He said, "There was no way I was throwing that into the ocean." right. And so that, that experience which may or may not have actually taken place, but it's actually so much a part of how some of us come to understand Hughes. Hughes standing on that ship refusing to let go of the Leaves of Grass. But what I try to do in this article is explain why that is? Because of this incredible attachment he has, not only to the writings of this man but to the man himself and what he offered Hughes as a way to construct his life. Uh, there, uh, and, and sexuality had a, a big part of that.

Eddie: Yeah.

Wallace: Right?

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: Uh, Hughes was, to say the very least, unclear about his sexuality. And as I said in the book, he was evasive. I think he was evasive on purpose. I mean and this is why I connect religion and sexuality in the same way that he was evasive about his religion, he was evasive about sexuality. I mean part of that was his style that was a, a, a style as an artist. Um, he, he felt -- he did not feel uh, compelled to be clear about (36:00) many  things and sexuality and religion, two perhaps of the most foundational and formidable asp- formidable aspects of all of our lives. Um, he chose to be uh, unclear about those things and I think and I see a relationship between those things. His evasiveness about his religion and his evasiveness about his sexuality. One of the things that I'm doing in the book that perhaps might proved a little bit controversial --

Eddie: Just a little bit.

Wallace: --  a little bit, I did not say in this book as many expected that I would that Hughes was gay. What I tried to do is think about why we continue to ask that question?

Eddie: We, we all, we're all looking for Langston.

Wallace: Everybody wants to know if Hughes was gay.

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: And so what happened in the course of writing and thinking and researching and writing and thinking, I turned it around to the audience. When I would give talks, I'd turned it around to the audience. I would say and you know perhaps, is the way you know to buy some time at first, um, I would say things like, um, when people would say, "Well, was Hughes gay?" I say, "Well, you know, um, I don't know but perhaps we need to think about why we're asking that question." But then I got really serious about that. Perhaps, we really do need to think about why we're asking that question because now what has happened, the question about Hughes' sexuality has its own historiography, right? So there's the history of the idea but then there's the historiography on that idea. You know, uh Hughes shows up, had shown up in almost anthology and documentary on uh, gay black writers since 1970's. (38:00) Why is that when there is no evidence whether not, Hughes was actually gay. So the question itself has become an important one. So, instead of dealing with Hughes' sexuality in the book, I actually deal with the questions surrounding his sexuality.

Eddie: So what is the question suggest about our thinking of gender and sexuality? So, what does it mean to grapple with the question as opposed to settle whether or not Hughes was gay or a queer or not?

Wallace: In answer that, to that question can I read you a passage?

Eddie: Oh, that would be wonderful.

Wallace: Okay. I wanna to read you this passage uh, about Hughes evade -- Hughes' evasiveness because um, that notion of evasiveness about sexuality, about religion runs throughout the book. And I tried to settle it here in a particular way. So I'm gonna to read a few sentences to sort of set this up and to show you where I was trying to get to with this. And how in fact, uh, I, I tried to turn the question around and to make it something about uh, sexuality and how we, uh, how I want us to think more, in more sophisticated ways about sexuality.

Eddie: I see. Okay.

Wallace: Hughes' evasiveness about a, quote, personal religion however was not always a matter of deceit or just ingeniousness. More clearly rather, it was a strategy. A strategy foremost to maintain a sense of, quote, privacy as David Eteinets and others have shown. Hughes was famously private about his personal life and rarely divulged intimacies or particularities. Perhaps as a means to preserve the integrity of his approach to life as an artist. But it was also a strategy to shape his own identity with regard to religion. "God has written me a letter" as he says in personal, "I have given God my answer." (40:00) Indeed, Hughes' evasiveness about his own faith was consistent with his evasiveness about other "identities" he seemingly disavowed or disclaimed? The sense of strategy and purposeful evasiveness applies to the common assertion that Hughes homosexual. Although Hughes has appeared in nearly every major anthology and monograph of American and African-American gay and literary and cultural history in recent years, whether or not Langston Hughes was indeed gay in the mid-twentieth century sexualized version of the word and harbored same sex attraction and desire will never be fully or satisfactorily known. So that's the controversial part. So I say that to set myself up in the book to turn that question around about sexuality, uh, instead of writing a book where I declare Hughes as gay, I opened it up about, uh, I opened up the discussion about identity and the construction of identity. I'm not saying that Hughes was gay. I'm not saying, he was not gay. I'm actually trying to get us to think more, in more sophisticated ways about sexuality because what has been done in the past, people have remarked about a few instances of encounters that Hughes may have had and they named that as an identity. They say, "Well, that means he was gay." And they also have looked to the assertion uh, that on a represented may has made that he was a sexual. That he was gay because in some sense, uh, there has been no other assertion to give fire to the uh, claim that he was, that Hughes was gay like the one that's, that represented that, that, (42:00) he was a sexual, right? That seems to fuel that fire. So what becomes important for me is to talk about the construction of sexual identity. Um, and disconnect it in some ways from behaviors and also to, to take seriously the absence of evidence because a lot of what has happened is, in the absence of evidence of Hughes' homosexuality, he's been dubbed homosexual. And I think that's not a fair, that's not a sophisticated way to think about sexuality. So I turned the question around so instead of giving, trying to come up with a smoking gun to prove that Hughes was gay, I try to get my readers to think about what Hughes may have been performing. Some maybe, some uh, performance have dissemblance in a way that a lot of black people have dissembled. So if we are still confused about whether or not, Hughes was gay, perhaps then that's the lesson. You know, is to not not land on an identity but to think in fluid ways about what it may mean to walk in the world as a sexual being? One thing one day, one thing the next. I mean, sexuality is fluid. Maybe Hughes was performing that. So to call him gay may not adequately or accurately described his lived experience.

Eddie: So to kind of invoke um, to kind of invoke um, Isaac Julian's classic looking for Langston, the question is, who's doing the looking and for what purposes and ins?

Wallace: Right. Why are we looking?

Eddie: Why are we looking?

Wallace: So that's the question for me, why are we looking? And when we post that question, then it opens up.

Eddie: Right.

Wallace: The whole, the whole exploration opens up and it's not so much about who's Hughes was attracted to. It was about, it's, it's about how we think about sexuality is construction and (44:00) its performance.

Eddie: Well, the book is, look, Langston's Salvation, American Religion in the Bard of Harlem, Wallace says seems like this was such an extraordinary experience to be in the archives to walk with Langston overall these years.

Wallace: It was a joy. Eddie, I spent the last twelve years communing with Langston Hughes. That's a great way to go,

Eddie: That's a great way to spent twelve years.

Wallace: That's a great way to spend sometimes.

Eddie: So thanks, Wallace for uh, joining me today for this extraordinary discussion. I wanna thank you um, for uh, your spirit, for your intelligence and insight for giving us Langston in this new light. I wanna, additionally, uh, give a special shout out to the staff of the Department of African-American Studies here at Princeton. Our office manager April Peters. Our events coordinator. Dionne Worthy and social media specialist Allison Bland and our technical specialist and audio engineer, our executive producer, Elio Leo. Remember, you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website, aas.princeton.edu. Thanks again Wallace for this wonderful conversation.

Wallace: Thank you It was a delight.

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