Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Langston Hughes Testimony (Senate Committee on Government Operations) March 24, 1953

ROY COHN: Do you remember writing this: "Good-morning, Revolution: You're the very best friend I ever had. We gonna pal around together from now on"?

LANGSTON HUGHES: Yes, sir, I wrote that.

COHN: Did you write this, "Put one more 'S' in the USA to make it Soviet. The USA when we take control will be the USSA then"?

HUGHES: Yes, sir, I wrote that.

COHN: Were you kidding when you wrote those things? What did you mean by those?

HUGHES: Would you like me to give you an interpretation of that?

COHN: I would be most interested.

HUGHES: Very well. Will you permit me to give a full interpretation of it?

COHN: Surely.

HUGHES: All right, sir. To give a full interpretation of any piece of literary work one has to consider not only when and how it was written but what brought it into being, the emotional and physical background that brought it into being. I, sir, was born in Joplin, Missouri. I was born a Negro. From my very earliest childhood memories, I have encountered very serious and very hurtful problems. One of my earliest childhood memories was going to the movies in Lawrence, Kansas, where we lived, and there was one motion picture theater, and I went every afternoon. It was a nickelodeon, and I had a nickel to go. One afternoon I put my nickel down and the woman pushed it back and she pointed to a sign. I was about seven years old.

COHN: I do not want to interrupt you. I do want to say this. I want to save time here. I want to concede very fully that you encountered oppression and denial of civil rights. Let us assume that, because I assume that will be the substance of what you are about to say. To save us time, what we are interested in determining for our purpose is this: Was the solution to which you turned that of the Soviet form of government?

HUGHES: Sir, you said you would permit me to give a full explanation.

COHN: I was wondering if we could not save a little time, because I want to concede the background which you wrote it from was the background you wanted to describe.

HUGHES: I would much rather preserve my reputation and freedom than to save time.

COHN: Take as long as you want.

HUGHES: The woman pushed my nickel back and pointed to a sign beside the box office, and the sign said "Colored not admitted." It was my first revelation of the division between the American citizens. My playmates who were white and lived next door to me could go to that motion picture and I could not. I could never see a film in Lawrence again.

When I went to school, in the first grade, my mother moved to Topeka for a time, and my mother worked for a lawyer, and she lived in the downtown area, and being a working woman naturally she wanted to send me to the nearest school. But they would not let me go to the school. There were no Negro children there. My mother had to take days off from her work, had to appeal to her employer, had to go to the school board, and finally after the school year had been open for some time, she got me into the school.

I had been there only a few days when the teacher made unpleasant and derogatory remarks about Negroes and specifically seemingly pointed at myself. Some of my schoolmates stoned me on the way home from school. One of my schoolmates (and there were no other Negro children in the school), a little white boy, protected me, and I have never in all my writing career or speech career as far as I know said anything to create a division among humans, or between whites or Negroes, because I have never forgotten this kid standing up for me against these other first graders who were throwing stones at me. I have always felt from that time on that there are white people in America who can be your friend, and will be your friend, and who do not believe in the kind of things that almost every Negro who has lived in our country has experienced.

I do not want to take forever to tell you these things, but I must tell you that they have very deep emotional roots in one's childhood and one's beginnings, as I am sure any psychologist or teacher of English or student of poetry will say about any creative work.

My father and my mother were not together. When I got old enough to learn why they were not together, again it was the same thing. My father as a young man, shortly after I was born, had studied law by correspondence. He applied for permission to take the bar examination in the state of Oklahoma, where he lived, and they would not permit him. A Negro evidently could not take the examination. You could not be a lawyer at that time in the state of Oklahoma. You know that has continued right up to recent years; we had to go all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago to get Negroes into the law school.

Those things affected my childhood very much and very deeply. I missed my father. I learned he had gone away to another country because of prejudice here. When I finally met my father, at the age of seventeen, he said, "Never go back to the United States. Negroes are fools to live there." I didn't believe that. I loved the country I had grown up in. I was concerned with the problems, and I came back here. My father wanted me to live in Mexico or Europe. I did not. And my whole career has been built here.

When I grew older, I went to high school in Cleveland. I went to a high school in a very poor neighborhood, and we were very poor people. My friends and associates were very poor children, and many of them were of European parentage (some of them had been brought here in steerage themselves from Europe) and many of these students--and this story is told, sir, parts of it, not as fully as I want to tell you some things, in my autobiography, The Big Sea--many of these pupils began to tell me about Eugene Debs, and about the new nation and the new republic. I became interested in whatever I could read that Debs had written or spoken about. I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican parties for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely emotional and born out of my own need to find some way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how to adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I cannot even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or, in the South, go to the library and get a book out. So that has been a very large portion of the emotional background of my work, which I think is essential to one's understanding.

When I graduated from high school, I went to live with my father for a time in Mexico, and in my father I encountered the kind of bitterness, the kind of utter psychiatric frustration that has been expressed in some Negro novels--not in those I have written myself, I don't believe. A man who was rabidly anti-American, anti-United States. I did not sympathize with that viewpoint on the part of my own father. My feeling was: this is my country, I want to live here. I want to come back here. I want to make my country as beautiful as I can, as wonderful a country as I can, because I love it myself. So I went back after a year in Mexico, and I went to Columbia.

At Columbia University in New York City, where I had never been before, but where I heard there was practically no prejudice, by that time wanting to be a writer and having published some papers in Negro magazines, I applied for a position on the staff of the Spectator newspaper. I was the only Negro in the group. I cannot help but think that it was due to prejudice that of all the assignments--and there were various assignments: sports, theater, classroom activities, debating--of all the various assignments, they assigned me to cover society news. They very well knew that I could not go to dances and parties, being colored, and therefore I could bring no news, and after a short period, I was counted out of the Spectator group.

When I went into the dormitory my first day there, I had a reservation for a room. It had been paid for. I was not given the room. They could not find the reservation. I had to take all of that day and a large portion of the next one to get into the dormitory. I was told later I was the first to achieve that. In other words, to simple little things like getting a room in a university, one has to devote extraordinary methods even to this day in some parts of our country

I am thinking of the early 1920s. I did not stay at Columbia longer than a year due in part to the various kinds of racial prejudices that I encountered.

SENATOR EVERETT DIRKSEN: I think, Mr. Hughes, that would be adequate emotional background.

HUGHES: No, sir, that would not explain it all, how I arrive at the point that Mr. Cohn, I believe, has asked me about.

COHN: Could you make it briefer, please?

SENATOR DIRKSEN: Do you think we need more background to tell what you meant by USSA?

HUGHES: I think you do, sir. Because a critical work has a very deep background; it does not come in a moment. I am perfectly willing to come back and give it to you later, if you are tired.

COHN: No, we will sit here as long as you want to go on. But you are missing the point completely. What we want to determine is whether or not you meant those words when you said them.

HUGHES: Sir, whether or not I meant them depends on what they came from and out of.

COHN: Did you desire to make the United States Soviet, put one more "S" in the USA to make it Soviet? "The USA, when we take control, will be the USSA."

HUGHES: When I left Columbia, I had no money. I had $13.

COHN: Did you mean those words when you spoke them? We know the background. I want to know now, did you mean the words when you spoke them? I am not saying you should not have meant them. I am asking you--

HUGHES: Yes, sir, and you gave me the permission to give the background.

SENATOR DIRKSEN: That answers the question.

HUGHES: I did not say "Yes" to your question. I said you gave me the chance to give you the background.

SENATOR DIRKSEN: We have had enough background.

No comments: