Sunday, July 24, 2011

Langston Hughes: An African American Writer in Central Asia in the 1930s

Central Asia abounds in fascinating stories of remarkable people. Langston Hughes, America's 'poet laureate of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance', spent 5 months in Central Asia in 1932-33.

Langston Hughes in Central Asia
Langston Hughes, 2nd left, in Central Asia
Hughes was invited to the Soviet Union, along with a group of African-American actors and musicians, as part of a film Black and White, that planned to expose race relations within the United States. When the project fell through, Hughes decided to travel in the region. As he wrote "I was starting out from Moscow...bound for Central Asia to discover how the people lived and worked there". By chance in Ashgabat, capital of present day Turkmenistan, he met Arthur Koestler (who at that stage was a journalist and member of the Communist Party) and the two writers travelled together for some weeks.

Hughes, as an official guest of the Soviet Writers' Union, spent time with artists, writers and musicians. He interviewed Tamara Khanum, the first Uzbek woman to dance publicly, and wrote extensively about Uzbek dance and music. He also visited several cotton collectives. At one cotton farm, about 60kms outside Tashkent, he met a dozen African American immigrants who had spent three years crossing Uzbek and American cotton seeds. They finally produced a new cotton strain that matured in 25% less time than traditional seeds.

Arthur Koestler photographed by Langston Hughes in Turkestan
Arthur Koestler, 4th from left  in Central Asia
As scholar David Cioni Moore notes, Hughes became the first American writer to be translated into any Central Asian language: the State Publishers of the Uzbek S.S.R. commissioned a volume of fifty of Hughes' poems to be translated into Uzbek by the eminent literary figure Sanjar Siddiq.

A slim volume of Hughes' essays A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, was published in a print run of 1500 copies in 1934 by the Cooperative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR.  Today only two copies are known: one in the Leningrad library and the other in Yale. Hughes identified strongly with working-class internationalism, and the book contains glowing descriptions of the USSR as a worker's paradise where people, regardless of colour, were equal.

Langston Hughes with a writers group in Central Asia
Langston Hughes in Ashgabat
Hughes abandonned a memoir From Harlem to Samarkand. However, in his 1956 work I Wonder as I Wander, his Central Asian sojourn fills 90 pages. Photographs he took in Central Asia are available at Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The same library has audio and video recordings of Hughes reading his works.

I end this post with an excerpt from his poem Lenin.

Lenin walks around the world.
Black, brown, and white receive him.
Language is no barrier.
The strangest tongues believe him.

Related posts: Tamara Khanum: Legendary Uzbek Dancer