Langston Hughes in Soviet Central Asia

by Nathan Hamm on 7/26/2006 · 3 comments

David Mikosz writes to let me know that he has republished A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia by Langston Hughes. Breed has a good post on the republication of the book, calling it “a contrast with what the perfidious Albionese were writing” about the region in the earlier parts of the 20th century. A couple years ago, David Chioni Moore wrote an article about Hughes’s experience in Central Asia. A link to that article can be found here.

Information about the reprint follows.

PUBL.- A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, Langston Hughes, reprinted, edited and annotated by David Mikosz

A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, by Langston Hughes, edited by David Mikosz
Al Salam Printhouse, Bishkek, 2006, 66 pp., $5 or 200 Kyrgyz sum + shipping
ISBN: 9967-23-555-1

Number of pages: 66
Cover: Softback, ISBN: 9967-23-555-1
To order: david.mikosz@gmail.com

This is the first reprint of a book that was published once in 1934 in the Soviet Union. 1,500 copies were printed and sold at a price of 60 kopeks. The material came from a trip to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan by Langston Hughes in 1931. The original printed version has been scanned and typeset as close as possible to the original text (as found in the Leningrad State Library). Based on documents available at Yale University, Langston Hughes seems to have wished for large changes to be made to the text – these were not made and the book was published as it is re-printed. However, Hughes’ corrections have been annotated in the text by the editor as endnotes so that the reader can also see what sections Hughes wished to change.

This work represents an interesting example of the optimism by American liberals for the Soviet Union that was abruptly cancelled as the Stalinist purges gradually gained strength. After several years of searching various libraries in Central Asia, the editor was unable to find the book in Central Asia and the only copy thus far located is in the Leningrad Library. This book is being republished with no commentary and in the interest of making this document more widely known.

David Mikosz, the editor, is a long time resident of Central Asia who has worked on a variety of development projects.

For information on how to receive this book, please write to: david.mikosz@gmail.com


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Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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{ 3 comments }

Laurence July 27, 2006 at 6:34 am

I’m glad David Mikosz has republished Hughes essay. I believe the essay is also contained in the complete works of Langston Huges, published by by the University of Missouri Press (http://www.umsystem.edu/upress/hughes.htm). I do hope as a historian, Mikosz has been be more careful in editing the essay than he appears to be in this publication announcement.

It is historically inaccurate to call Hughes a “liberal” at the time he published “A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia.” In the 1930s, Hughes was self-consciously radical, and while not a party member, supported the Soviet Union and the goals of the Communist Party.

Only later, in the 1950s, did Hughes turn against the Communist Party–and testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. More from Wikipedia:

In 1932, Hughes became part of a group of disparate blacks who went to the Soviet Union to make a film depicting the plight of most blacks living in the United States at the time. The film was never made, but Hughes was given the opportunity to travel extensively through the Soviet Union and to the Soviet controlled regions in Central Asia, the latter parts usually closed to Westerners. Hughes would also manage to travel to China and Japan before returning home to the States.

Hughes’ poetry was frequently published in the CPUSA newspaper and he was involved in initiatives supported by Communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys and support of the Spanish Republic. Hughes was also involved in other Communist-led organizations like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, even though he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant. He signed a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin’s purges and joined the American Peace Mobilization in 1940 working to keep the U.S. from participating in WWII. Hughes initially did not favor black American involvement in the war because of the irony of U.S. Jim Crow laws existing at the same time a war was being fought against Fascism and the Axis Powers. He came to support the war effort and black American involvement in it after coming to understand that blacks would also be contributing to their struggle for civil rights at home.

Langston Hughes, before the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953
Hughes was accused of being a Communist by many on the political right, but he always denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote “it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept.” He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Following his appearance, he distanced himself from Communism and was subsequently rebuked by some who had previously supported him on the Radical Left. Over time, Hughes would distance himself from his most radical poems. In 1959 came the publication of his Selected Poems. Absent from this group of poems was his most controversial work.

David Mikosz August 2, 2006 at 12:28 am

Well, as I tried to make clear in the announcement, the book was published in a form that I do not think Hughes agreed with. The book is clearly very radical. The changes really do have the effect of making him much seem much less radical and tone down the book greatly. So, my characterization of him as a liberal was as someone who seems to have been part of a plan to talk directly to the African-Americans in the US South and the Indians in British India but pulled out or chose not to participate in this propaganda campaign. Who knows?

What surprised me was the lack of mention of this by Hughes in other works around that time – in The Big Sea, his Turkmen and Uzbek experiences are glossed over very quickly. In I wonder as I wander, it is a bit more extensive but no where does he seem, at least in his writings, to be openly radical.

Alas, I said I offered the book without commentary and now I’ve gone ahead and given some. The point is that this book, to me at least, is fascinating and deserves to be reprinted and I hope read.

It talks about how Chicago teachers do not get their salaries on time, how kids in the American South are forced to go harvest cotton and that in Uzbekistan none of this happens.

I would be very pleased if the book had been reprinted in the Missouri collection, but this is a bit longer than an essay.

best wishes,

David

David Mikosz August 2, 2006 at 12:45 am

Well, as I mentioned in the announcement, the book was published in a form that Hughes seems to not have wanted. The changes that he wanted made make it a considerably less radical book than that which was published. In his other works published around that time, The Big Sea for example, glosses over this very quickly.

I think there were many people in the early 1930s who could be called radical but would certainly be mainstream now. Hughes mentions that because of the Depression, school teachers in Chicago were not getting there salaries, and in the American South, unlike in Uzbekistan, school children did not have to work in the fields. His descriptions of racism he encountered in the US also help contribute to a sense of radicalism that I would characterize as a very healthy thing indeed. It is certainly sad when viewed in light of Uzbekistan today.

Well, I said I would not comment and look, I went ahead and did. The important part is that the book is a fascinating read and I wanted to make it more widely available. I mention in the introduction that I am not a scholar of Hughes or of particularly of Uzbekistan but simply have an avid interest in both. So, I trust you’ll forgive me for offending your sense of history. 🙂

By the way, I certainly hope that the Collected Works reprinted it, but at 66 pages it is a bit longer than an essay.

best wishes,

David

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