Lessons from Langston Hughes


During these lazy days of summer and controversy, I hope you’re staying encouraged in your walk with thought-leadership practice. As food for thought (and action), I want to share some truncated words by Langston Hughes (1935) on the challenge African-American writers face. While Hughes speaks to the black experience at the time of this writing, I think we can agree his prescription can apply to all underserved groups for which you’re advocating. So where you see “Negro,” I encourage to you to mentally insert “women,” “LGBT people,” “people of color,” “immigrants” and everybody else who needs our help, attention and thought-leadership.

‘To Negro Writers’

“There are certain practical things American Negro writers can do through their work.

We can reveal to the Negro masses, from which we come, our potential power to transform the now ugly face of the Southland into a region of peace and plenty. We can reveal to the white masses those Negro qualities which go beyond the mere ability to laugh and sing and dance and make music, and which are a part of the useful heritage that we place at the disposal of a future free America.

Negro writers can seek to unite blacks and whites in our country, not on the nebulous basis of an interracial meeting, or the shifting sands of religious brotherhood, but on the solid ground of the daily working-class struggle to wipe out, now and forever, all the old inequalities of the past.

Furthermore, by way of exposure, Negro writers can reveal in their novels, stories, poems, and articles: The lovely grinning face of philanthropy—which gives a million dollars to a Jim Crow school, but not one job to a graduate of that school; which builds a Negro hospital with second-rate equipment, then commands black patients and student-doctors to go there whether they will or no; or which, out of the kindness of its heart, erects yet another separate, segregated, shut-off, Jim Crow Y.M.C.A.

Negro writers can expose those white labor leaders who keep their unions closed against Negro workers and prevent the betterment of all workers. We can expose, too, the sick-sweet smile of organized religion—which lies about what it doesn’t know, and about what it does know. And the half-voodoo, half-clown, face of revivalism, dulling the mind with the clap of its empty hands.

Expose, also, the false leadership that besets the Negro people—bought and paid for leadership, owned by capital, afraid to open its mouth except in the old conciliatory way so advantageous to the exploiters.

And all the economic roots of race hatred and race fear.

But there are certain very practical things American Negro writers can do. And must do. There’s a song that says, ‘the time ain’t long.’ That song is right. Something has got to change in America—and change soon. We must help that change to come.”


Deborah DouglasPeriodically we share wisdom from our team with our community. The above letter was sent as a weekly missive to the Public Voices Fellowship cohort at The University of Texas, Austin from leader Deborah Douglas.



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