When Langston Hughes Sang Jewish America

Selected Letters of Langston Hughes
By Langston HughesEdited by Arnold RampersandKnopf, 480 pages, $35

These missives written by one of the most limpid African-American poets are self-concealing in the extreme. Langston Hughes was so discreet that when he was hospitalized for gonorrhea in 1941, he told intimate friends that the problem was arthritis. Yet in “Selected Letters of Langston Hughes,” Hughes is outspoken about his Jewish friendships and alliances.

This atypical candor may have something to do with his roots, which he discussed in “The Big Sea: An Autobiography”: His mother’s father was a Jewish slave trader in Kentucky, named Silas Cushenberry. As the editor Arnold Rampersad — also a biographer of the poet — points out, Hughes was accustomed to mentioning this ancestor on occasions such as a 1965 commission for “Let Us Remember,” the text for a cantata presented as a modernized yizkor, a memorial service paying homage to forbears. The American Jewish composer David Amram recalls that when one rabbi asked how Hughes’s text could convey appropriate Yiddishkeit, the poet replied, “by asserting that he had a Jewish grandfather.”

Performed for the 3,000 delegates of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now known as the Union for Reform Judaism), “Let Us Remember” juxtaposed the oppression of Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald with that of Montgomery, Selma and Savannah. Characteristically, Hughes remained optimistic about the future: “A new world rises from the muck becoming a thousand roofs, buds, a billion leaves.”

This optimism would be sorely tested by historical experience, as he revealed in “The Soviet Union and Jews,” a 1946 essay published in The Chicago Defender. Hughes wrote:

“Very early in life, it seemed to me that there was a relationship between the problems of the Negro people in America and the Jewish people in Russia, and that the Jewish people’s problems were worse than ours. Every so often my grandmother would read a headline in the Negro press stating that a Negro had been lynched in Georgia, or two Negroes had been lynched in Louisiana, or three Negroes had been lynched in Texas.

“From our daily paper every so often she would read an item that a dozen Jews had been ridden down by the horses of the Cossacks in the Ukraine, or 50 Jews killed in a pogrom in Old Russia, or a hundred Jews killed and injured by a mob in Poland. So, I thought, here in our American South we Negroes were lynched by ones or twos or threes, but in Tsarist Russia and Poland they killed Jews by the dozens, or even the hundreds.

In 1945 he noted:

“The two problems have much in common — Berlin and Birmingham. The Jewish people and the Negro people both know the meaning of Nordic supremacy. We have both looked into the eyes of terror.”

More than sharing an identity in victimhood, Hughes’s twin origins led to an appreciation of Jewish culture. In a 1945 Defender article, Hughes recounts visiting the New York offices of Moses Asch, the Warsaw, Poland-born founder of Asch Records, a sound specialist who built a transmitter for the Forverts’s radio station, WEVD. Asch had recorded Hughes reading some of his poems, including “I, Too, Sing America,” with its upbeat take on the future of current sufferings, akin to the hopes expressed in the phrase “Next year in Jerusalem.” At Asch’s office, Hughes inquired as to whether his poetry recording was ready for release. It was not, but the poet was presented with a “wonderful set of ‘Songs of Israel’ for the Jewish holidays. I held them carefully in the crowded subway and played them as soon as I got home. I thought how beautiful, elemental, and sad are the traditional Hebrew chants and wails.”

Although Hughes’s Defender readership was chiefly African-American, his column sometimes addressed American Jews, arguing for mutual compassion and understanding. “Suggestions to White Shopkeepers” from 1943 states: “If you are Jewish or foreign-born, and if your own people abroad have known the evils of Hitlerism, that would seem to me all the more reason why you should be interested in the problems of your colored customers in America, who have long known the evils of local fascist practices — although in the past we have not called Jim Crow by a fascist name.”

In promoting interracial understanding, Hughes was inspired by such activists as Rabbi Jacob Weinstein, whom he met on the West Coast around 1932. Weinstein had been dismissed from San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel for what was seen as his too ardent support of striking longshoremen and as urging shop owners among the faithful to raise employee wages. In 1939, Weinstein would land in a more socially progressive congregation, Chicago’s Kehilath Anshe Ma’ariv Temple, now part of the KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation. In a 1933 letter to a patron, Hughes expressed appreciation that Weinstein “has widened his range of activities in the East. He seemed like a splendid fellow.”

Hughes also received support from the philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. In 1932, after Rosenwald’s death, Hughes wrote to the president of the Rosenwald Fund, calling him a “friend of America and of my people… I must always remember him with personal as well as racial gratitude.” His publisher, Alfred Knopf, and his agent, Maxim Lieber, were Jews, and Hughes co-wrote “A Pictorial History of the Negro in America” and “Black Magic: A Pictorial History of Black Entertainers in America” with American Jewish scholar Milton Meltzer.

Hughes also collaborated with composers Kurt Weill and Jan Meyerowitz, the latter on an opera, “Esther,” among other projects. Apparently relishing caustic exchanges with Meyerowitz, free from the usual genteel veneer of interracial collaborations of that era, Hughes would blast the composer in letters, signing off with drolly conciliatory messages such as “Gifts of Purim to you!” or “Thanks for that FINE sermon!” Epitomizing a working relationship with the Jewish people, these letters depict a mensch of talent. Small wonder Hughes has been loved by generations of poetry devotees.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.

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