What We Talk About When We Talk About Langston
Author: Saeed Jones
October 3, 2011
Two years ago, I wrote about Langston Hughes’s sexual identity and what I have come to call “closeted poetry.” Here’s an excerpt from the catalyst for that line of thinking:
Last week, I told one of my 9th grade students that Langston Hughes was gay. The student stood up, panic-stricken, and pleaded, “Please don’t say something like that, Mr. Jones. That’s not funny.” He paused for a moment, then added. “He’s one of my idols.” None of the other students noticed the conversation, distracted by their own projects & discussions. And the student and I went about our separate ways. I should’ve have turned it into teaching “moment” but I didn’t. The student wasn’t ready, and – frankly – neither was I.
The hesitation of that last sentence strikes me, in retrospect, as the real point. Why did I think the student wasn’t ready? Why wasn’t I? And ready for what exactly? That blog post continues to get visits almost daily. Often from readers who have entered “Langston Hughes gay?” on Google and, by the grace of algorithms, ended up on my blog. The comments those readers leave are varied and fascinating. This morning, though, I am especially drawn to the following comment from “Caroline” who, in May of this year wrote: “What precisely was the point of telling a 14 year old that someone is gay? […] You’re teachers. Grow up and teach and try not to keep injecting your opinions.”
Considering that historian Henry Louis Gates has noted that the Harlem Renaissance was “surely as gay as it was black, not that it was exclusively either of theses.” And that writers like A.B. Christa Schwarz, author of Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as filmmakers like Isaac Julien and Rodney Evans have also dedicated their attention to this aspect of the Harlem Renaissance, this is more than a matter of opinion. The work of Hughes contemporaries like Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent (notable for being the only explicitly “out” member of the Renaissance movement) , Countee Cullen, and Claude McKay also figure prominently in this conversation. The frequent connection between sexuality and art is not merely a wayward teacher’s opinion. More importantly, “Caroline,” what exactly is the harm in “injecting” – or perhaps you meant to say “infecting” – a literature discussion with a bit of gay history?
Regardless of that particular 9th grader’s identity, it was – or could have been – an opportunity for him to challenge his own preconceptions and thereby deepen his connection to Langston Hughes’s work. Only in a homophobic mindset must we assume that a queer revelation would automatically “shock” a student out of his or her connection to a writer. Education need not be comfortable (or heteronormative) to be useful. My only regret is that – at the time – I limited the conversation by walking away from the opportunity to engage this student. I should have asked this presumably “straight” student, “Well, what’s wrong with one of your poetry idols being gay?”
Perhaps then, instead of “closeted poetry” which implies that the poets themselves attempted to use language to mask their orientation, this is really about “closeting poetry,” or the way in which queerness is silenced and erased in our middle and high school classrooms. No one is implying that a writer’s identity is should be the only part of the lesson, but context is necessary for intelligent, critical discussions of literature. It seems to me that if 14 year olds are old enough to get bullied for being gay, then they are certainly ready to learn that some of their idols were “born this way.”