Lineages of the Literary Left: Essays in Honor of Alan M. WaldSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 3.0 License. Please contact email@example.com to use this work in a way not covered by the license. :
For more information, read Michigan Publishing's access and usage policy.
3. The Darker Brother and the Cracker Boy: Langston Hughes, Don West, and Poetry as Social Conversation
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
“Rise up, you Cracker boy. Sing your ballads,
Dream your future.”
In 1947, Langston Hughes and Don West, a radical white poet and organizer from Devil’s Hollow, Georgia, arranged to make guest appearances in each other’s college writing classes at Atlanta University and Oglethorpe University, respectively. Hughes and West, who were born just four years apart and published their first books five years apart, had known each other for several years and were both huge-selling poets by this time, despite the way the publishing deck was stacked against them as an African American and a poor white Southerner and as political radicals: both achieved this status by operating largely outside of the mainstream publishing world. For instance, Hughes’s book A New Song was published by the International Workers’ Order (IWO); Louise Patterson, a leader in the IWO, used to read Hughes’s poems at talks and hawk the books. West’s books, similarly, were sold through union meetings and other gatherings of sharecroppers, miners, and farmers in what Jeff Biggers calls a “populist poetry crusade.”
The idea for the exchange of classroom visits by Hughes and West initiated from the mutual respect and interest the two felt for each other, sometimes manifested in the physical envelope of front and back matter: West thanks Hughes in the acknowledgments to his 1946 collection Clods of Southern Earth for “teaching me through the beauty of his own work,” and Hughes in turn called West’s work “the poems of our heartbeats” in 1951, a comment that was used on the back cover of West’s 1973 collection O Mountaineers! But Hughes’s and West’s presence in each other’s writing classrooms was also a literalization of an important part of their relationship: in their fond if not close acquaintanceship, the two poets were able to school each other in particular and consequential ways. The structure of the twin classroom visits, then, raises and enacts a fascinating question: what did these two poets teach each other—particularly as they worked through a shared radical politics toward what we might then call a radical poetics? And how does treating poetics as a conversation challenge more static visions of poetry as words on the page emerging from singular vision? As in the epigraphs above, this essay will attempt both to move toward and signal a conversational analytical approach by presenting all quotations of Hughes’s and West’s poems side by side instead of in tandem (adapting a practice both familiar and generative in art history classrooms).
Linking Hughes and West in an analytical enterprise serves as a kind of scholarly twofer: Hughes’s broad inclusion into the American canon is able to direct our attention back to West, whose work had been out of print for nearly twenty years until the 2004 publication of Biggers and Brosi’s reader No Lonesome Road (with much of it remaining out of print today). But this dimension of Hughes’s legacy also directs us back to the more radical and formally challenging aspects of Hughes’s work that actually get less attention now than before his widespread anthologizing (and before his own self-sanitizing following his appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953, reflected in what he chose to include in his Selected Poetry in 1967). Many of Hughes’s most explicitly leftist poems, mostly from the 1930s, remained out of print or uncollected until after his death, with the 1973 appearance of Good Morning, Revolution (edited by Faith Berry) and the 1994 appearance of Collected Poems. In particular, the relationship between Hughes and West highlights the interracialism that was such an important part of their poetic projects, especially interracialism born of class solidarity. Further, while promotion of class solidarity characterized much literature of the American Left, the “conversation” between Hughes and West is instructive in the way that it reveals a process by which the two poets helped each other grapple with what that solidarity would mean in terms of both politics and poetics.
Although in the twenty-first century even most US high school students are familiar with Hughes—who after all received a literal stamp of approval from the US Postal Service in 2002—West, even with some sustained recent attention (from Jeff Biggers, Chris Green, and James Lorence), largely remains a victim of the historical amnesia regarding the Literary Left that still has not been fully addressed. West’s fourth volume of poetry, Clods of Southern Earth (1946), sold over twelve thousand copies by subscription before even coming from the press, and it sold nearly one hundred thousand copies during its run. This was reported in the Atlanta Constitution as a record for a first book of poetry—which is remarkable even though Clods was not, in fact, West’s first book of poetry—but West, succinctly tagged a “mountain socialist” by his colleague and Highlander School cofounder Myles Horton, remains mostly unknown.
“Walt Whitman in Overalls”
West was born into a Gilmer County, Georgia, farming family at a moment when, as James Lorence puts it, “Appalachia was already immersed in an irreversible transition that strained the bonds of family and community that had sustained mountain people for more than a century.” West’s father, a subsistence farmer and father of eight, moved the family to Cobb County so he could take up cotton sharecropping while West was in his teens. By the age of fifteen, West had attended school for a total of five terms and had begun traveling seven miles by mule to Oakland Junior High School. Then an uncle got him a place at the Berry School, a school for children living in poverty in the Georgia mountains, where he worked his way through school until he left or was expelled in 1926 after clashes with school authorities over a variety of issues, including the administration’s paternalism, an uncritical screening of Birth of a Nation, and the dismissal of a popular staff member.
After completing three years of high school in this way, West was accepted to Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. He supported himself and his sister through college by gathering laundry, sweeping floors, and washing dishes, still finding time to be a campus leader and to carry baskets of food to the poor (purportedly, however, he often had to borrow the money to buy it). From Lincoln Memorial he went to Vanderbilt University, where his classmates included prize-winning writer Jesse Stuart (who wrote the introduction to West’s first book of poetry, Crab-Grass) and poet James Still, both of whom had also graduated from Lincoln Memorial. The three Appalachian writers, who were friends, came to be known as “the barefoot boys” at genteel Vanderbilt; although they followed quite different career paths, each found subject and inspiration in his rural background. In a 1978 interview, Still said that West was the “poet of the disinherited,” while Stuart “wrote most of the books.” West completed a degree at Vanderbilt’s School of Religion and began preaching in slums and in little mountain churches; according to Stuart, who refers to West in his autobiography as “Ron East,” West was removed from several churches for his social justice vision:
“What brought you here?”
“I’m getting my D.D. this year, preaching and working in the slums.”
“Same old Ron East!”
“In flesh and blood but not in spirit. I’ve been kicked out of three churches since I preached in the mountains. I’ve seen so much human suffering, Stuart, that I’ve grown bitter. I’ve been trying to save human beings on earth instead of preaching to them of a reward in heaven.”
This abrupt severing of relationships with churches would continue for decades, culminating in a dismissal for refusing to sign an anticommunist oath in 1956. By that time, West had been beaten unconscious, run out of town, and robbed of his home, library, and personal papers in a series of fires set by the Ku Klux Klan.
In the mid-1930s, West began to publish poetry in several of the same Left-sponsored venues that Hughes did. Both poets published in the Communist New Masses and Daily Worker and in the Harlem Liberator. Both poets felt the need in later collections (such as Hughes’s 1959 Selected Poems and West’s 1951 The Road Is Rocky) to obscure or omit their poems’ initial publishing venues. And both had work included in the important 1935 anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States; in addition to the thematic parallels established by the principles of the anthology, there are interesting structural parallels, with both Hughes’s and West’s contributions using rhythmic folk song as model—for Hughes’s “Ballad for Lenin” and for West’s “Southern Lullaby”:
I am Chico, the Negro,
Cutting cane in the sun.
I lived for you, Comrade Lenin.
Now my work is done.
Eat, little baby, eat well,
A Bolshevik you’ll be,
And hate this bosses’ hell-
Sucking it in from me . . .
The anthology encouraged this use of folk ballad as poetic material, including a small gathering of “Folk Songs” slotted into the “Poetry” section with both credited and uncredited lyrics.
West embarked on a lifetime of political activism and organizing, devoting himself to a range of issues in labor, civil rights, and education. He was involved in the 1929 Gastonia textile workers’ strike, and he frequently organized among miners. As Hughes did, West played a leading role in the defense of Angelo Herndon when Herndon’s case went to the Supreme Court in 1935 and 1937. A somewhat breathless summary, written in 1948 and supposedly drawn from the pages of the Daily Worker, is included in West’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) file:
[S]ubject wrote poem “Listen, I am a Communist” in 1934; fled Atlanta, Georgia in 1934 when sought on charges of inciting to insurrection; spoke at Boston, Mass. 1934 under auspices International Labor Defense demanding release of Ernst Thaelmann [sic]; jailed 1935 Pineville, Kentucky, for activities in connection with miner’s strike; subject on national committee of C.P. in 1936 drive for election of BROWDER and FORD when subject was in Louisville, Kentucky; also listed as state organizer of Workers Alliance of Kentucky and member of National Unemployed Committee for Browder and Ford in 1936; subject was present at reception of MAUDE WHITE, only negro [sic] member Central Committee of C.P. At New York City 6-21-37; subject listed as Georgia born organizer of the C.P. of Kentucky at the time. Confidential informant advises subject became a Communist and was a member in 1945 and 1948. . . . Subject presently residing on farm, Route 4, Douglasville, Georgia.
West was fired from Oglethorpe and several other positions under a cloud of relentless red-baiting, but until his death in 1992, he continued to write poetry, farm, and organize in Appalachia. He viewed these activities as necessarily intertwined, although he acknowledged that sometimes his other work took away from the time and energy he could spend writing poetry. By the time of West’s death, the FBI had compiled twelve hundred pages of files on him for various organizing activities under a number of different aliases.
West first initiated direct contact with Hughes in 1943, writing him a letter from Lula, Georgia, in which he declared, “I admire you and your writing as much as I do anyone I know of.” The next day West wrote again to ask for permission to read one of Hughes’s poems during one of his “regular broadcasts” on the radio station WGGA in Gainesville, Georgia. By this time, West had long been studying Hughes’s literary and nonliterary works and had dedicated a poem to him: “Brown Brother.” In this poem, West refers to the other poet’s accomplishment as his ability to “sing the songs your people think,” invoking both his and Hughes’s use of song in their contributions to Proletarian Literature in the United States. As this direct contact between the two poets continued, West began to adopt certain poetic strategies and priorities that had characterized Hughes’s own work.
One visible effect of Hughes on West is through what can be called the construction of a radical patriotism. Hughes had a career that straddled World War II (as did West), which for many African American writers and artists was extremely complicated in terms of their sense of Americanness. The segregated military worked to reinscribe the ideology of racism, even as serving in it called upon black men and women not only to be American heroes but also to allow themselves to be claimed as such. In fact, resisting the racism of the military required that African Americans had to insist upon their own patriotism and Americanism in the face of exclusion by the very institutions that bolstered and informed that patriotism. It is uniquely paradoxical—and as the war ended, of course, the paradox evolved into the now-familiar trope of the returning ethnic war hero who fought for American democratic ideals abroad and against Hitler’s racial policies, then returned to second-class citizenship at home. (Examples of this trope can be found in the cartoons of African American Communist Ollie Harrington, for instance, or in Peter LaFarge’s song “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” along with Toni Morrison’s novel Sula and Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony.)
In addition to the paradoxes of World War II consensus politics for the poet of color, Hughes’s desire to structure a radical patriotism was also profoundly shaped by his closeness to the organized Left and the movement for international Communism. This closeness continued, with varying degrees of openness, well beyond the so-called Red decade and was manifested (though not pigeonholed) by the places where Hughes published, the content of his writings, the friendships he maintained with leftist literary figures, the talks he attended or gave, and so on. To make himself part of a communist Left within the framework of struggle against white supremacy in the United States, and within an artistic dedication to promoting black American forms as valid art, meant that Hughes had to answer head-on the question of who has the right to claim and use patriotic symbols and themes. Of course, this question became sinister for both Hughes and West, who were accused not only of being lovers of Stalin but—most important—of being un-American when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Invoking his days as a preacher, West would draw parallels between Catholic McCarthyites and Judas, calling them both “children of the devil.”
Taking up this challenge to claim and define Americanism was an important contribution of Hughes, despite his defanging that has followed both the McCarthyite attacks on him and his schoolroom appropriation. Some of his better-known poems work this ground, particularly “I, Too, Sing America,” the poem from which I have taken half of the title for this essay, which invokes the Whitmanesque inclusiveness of America and envisions, confidently, a transformed system in the American future, and “Let America be America Again” (1938), which was first collected in A New Song, published by the International Workers Order. This artistic goal of Hughes’ is also visible in his less-anthologized poems, including ones that Hughes (under the coercion of red-baiting) suppressed himself or even repudiated during the 1950s, such as “One more ‘S’ in the USA” and “Good Morning, Revolution,” which opens with the speaker describing “Revolution” as his “pal” and goes on to insist that
Clearly, one of the boss’s silliest mistakes here is calling the revolution “alien” when it is plainly native—and friendly, depending upon one’s economic class. The narrative voice of the poem, by contrast, comes across as so carefully “American,” with its “say, listen,” its “pal around,” and its “gimme the air,” that “American” is almost defamiliarized—which has the effect of opening up its definition. It is also worth noting that in this poem, the gender and even racial identity of the speaker are indeterminate—although the spelling and colloquial language, as well as the talk about “the boss,” make it clear that the speaker is a worker.
Hughes populates much of his poetry, and his prose as well, with characters who insist, through words, actions, voice, and carefully seeded identifying markers, upon their own exemplary Americanness. He then yokes this Americanness together with a class-conscious political vision that is inseparable from the idea of “the people’s poet” that has come to be so tightly associated with him—for better or for worse, depending on who is doing the associating. An example is “Air Raid over Harlem.” In this poem, the narrative voice is Harlem, personified. This consciousness-possessing “Harlem” imagines a movie that would send a “red” and endearingly American message to “Mr. Hearst”: that message is “Jim Crow can kiss my ass,” for “THE BLACK AND WHITE WORKERS ARE FREE.” The intent here is to wrest the idea of Americanism from a definition that promotes and maintains the status quo, both in society and in art—here represented by the movies.
While others adopted the politics and poetics of “radical patriotism”—one example is Kenneth Patchen—it formed a visible current between Hughes and West. West found this strategy particularly congenial to his own enterprise; he pursued a revisionist history of the United States across decades of his writing. West insistently traced the progressive values of working Americans, black and white, back to the first settlers of Georgia. Therein, according to West, lies the true history of the United States, a tale that has yet adequately to be told: “Someday I intend to do it, to tell about these people with rough hands, big feet, and hard bodies; about the real men and women of the South.”
Appalachian Press, 1974), 19. These “plain folk” represent real patriots, in West’s mind, as opposed to those who lay claim to the name while propping up economies of hate and exploitation. Hughes singled out West’s efforts to redefine “patriotism” by writing in 1951 that West’s poems are “as American as Rte. 66.” Thus, both Hughes and West can be seen to overlay the notion of patriotism with class consciousness, making a working-class revolution a peculiarly American promise, even as each one, early in his career, acknowledged the Soviet example.
West also shared with Hughes a vision of the poet’s role as one who directs this native American class consciousness, calls it to action as would a union organizer organizing a collective job action or a preacher calling for professions of faith through acts of charity (both jobs that West held at different times). By the 1930s, metaphors of awakening and arising on the part of the downtrodden were well established—from adoption of the opening line of “The Internationale” (“Arise, ye pris’ners of starvation”) to Joe Hill’s “Workers of the World, Awake” to Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! Hughes too worked within this idiom but laid out a role for the poet as the “awakener,” repeatedly injecting a call to “Listen!” into his poems: “Mr. Roosevelt, listen!”; “Listen, hungry ones!”; “Listen to yo’ prophets, / Little Jesus!”; “Say, Listen, Revolution,”; “Listen, Christ,”; “Revolt! Arise!”; and so forth. West’s poems appear to answer, and join, this challenge of Hughes’s:
Call to Creation
All you beauty-makers
Give up beauty for a moment.
Look at harshness, look at pain,
Look at life again.
Listen, I’m an Agitator
Listen . . . ! I’m an agitator—
They call me “Red,”
The color of Blood,
West’s poem appeared first in the Daily Worker in a more direct iteration that declared “I am a Communist / A Red / A Bolshevik!”
As the one who speaks for “the black millions,” or as “poet in overalls,” Hughes and West both enacted the identity formation of the politicized poor through formal choices that consciously elevate nonliterary artists—quilt makers, balladeers, fiddle players, revival workers in West’s case; blues singers, cabaret dancers, jazz musicians in Hughes’s case; as their most important “literary” ancestors. (In one or two of West’s poems, he also invoked jazz musicians, clearly as a kind of tribute to Hughes, because these poems are so touchingly Hughesian.) Both Hughes and West populated many of their poems with nonliterary artists: Hughes’s “sleek black boys in a cabaret,” for instance, and West’s “ballad singer.”
As James Smethurst points out, the slogan of the Communist-organized League of Struggle for Negro Rights, of which Hughes was the president, was “Promote Negro Culture in Its Original Form with Proletarian Content.” This notion of “infusing . . . old forms with new consciousness” provided a way for the poet to examine and acknowledge a particular subculture or folk form while remaining dedicated to the broader worker identity.
For Hughes and West, in addition to gestures they made in their poetry toward “folk” forms, imbuing “old forms with new consciousness” meant the poeticizing of everyday life—and also the simultaneous, corresponding, politicizing of everyday life. A succinct example is the ending of Hughes’s laconic “Elevator Boy” and the instructive (and efficient) double meaning of West’s “Georgia Scene”:
I been runnin’ this
Elevator too long.
Guess I’ll quit now.
down the cotton row
in the saddle
by the river bank
Paddle, boy, paddle!
Like Hughes, West seeks to give an ideologically suggestive picture of the familiar.
One way Hughes and West created the politicized ordinary is by staging multiple voices in their work so that the poetry itself is a kind of collective; as Edwin Rolfe wrote in To My Contemporaries, to achieve radical poetics “the mind must first renounce the fiction of the self.” In other words, this is poetry of alliance, as opposed to poetry of individualism or introspection. (Of course, both Hughes and West wrote that kind, too.) Hughes created a sense of class-based unity by voicing multiple members of the working class calling for it. He attempted to make his poetry plural. And this poetic plurality goes hand in hand with achievements that his characters might make in the world of politics—if they make their own efforts plural. For instance, Hughes’s “Sister Johnson Marches” (1938) and West’s “Last Wish” (1946) both begin in the singular but move, over three stanzas, from “I” to “we.” Hughes’s titular character declares “Here I am with my head held high!” while the narrative voice in West’s poem relates that her lover was “kilt by factory wheels, / Workin’ in Atco Mill.” By the end of the poem, though, Hughes gives us “people / Marching in a mass,” and West’s speaker describes wanting “to see my people jine / To tear thur misery down . . .”
Hughes’s influence on West is particularly strong here. West puts this elevation of plurality literally at the front of his Clods of Southern Earth, which he opens with a note titled “Appreciation”: “Whether this book is good or bad, a lot of folks had a hand in it—a Georgia sharecropper, a Carolina mill hand, twenty-four dead coal miners in Kentucky, and a lot more. I don’t know all their names, but they helped.” West’s poetry likewise speaks in the voices of many different people—marked off, among other things, by the various vernacular Englishes they speak. Further, as “Sister Johnson Marches” and “Last Wish” demonstrate, Hughes and West are both examples of the rare male poet who writes sometimes in the voice of a woman speaker. Their dearest hope is that someday people will join their voices together for workers’ rights as Hughes and West have joined them together in the chorus that is their poetry.
As much as he admired Hughes—indeed, likely because of it—there were important lessons that West wanted to give back to Hughes, because it is on this question of class-based unity that West sought to move Hughes farther along. West admired and imitated Hughes’s materialist and economic approach but saw Hughes circulating what West knew to be a deliberately created myth about American racism: that the real racists are the poor. Instead, the class position of African Americans and poor white Southerners should make them natural allies, if only poets could help undo the false teaching that the ruling class has used to obscure this fact. In an anxious fan’s letter, West wrote to Hughes in 1943:
I admire you and your writing as much as I do anyone I know of. But I think I shall always say that its [sic] wrong for any educated Negro to single out the “cracker,” “poor white trash” and any other group of working white folks, as the chief enemy of the Negro people.
West was reacting to Hughes’s use of the word “cracker,” citing one of his columns in the Chicago Defender, although Hughes also used the epithet in poems such as “Ballad of Sam Solomon” (published in the Afro-American in 1941). West’s poem “Voice of the Cracker” is enriched when read as a response to Hughes, creating a poetic conversation to accompany their epistolary one:
Sam Solomon called on
Every colored man
To qualify and register
And take a stand.
The crackers said, Sam,
If you carry this through
Ain’t no telling what
For the pattern was set
From the big houses
We’ll do to you.
And you’ve heard
That I’m the lyncher
The man with hood and night shirt!
But I tell you
You’ve heard falsely!
By those who now point
The unfriendly finger at me…
West insisted that the same forces that benefit from racism against African Americans have encouraged a lasting myth—that poor white Southerners, or “crackers,” are naturally racists—as a strategy to drive a wedge between groups of working people who should be allies. The word “redneck,” for instance, almost a stand-in for racist, used to signify someone who worked under the hot sun and got burned. (And as far back as the early decades of the twentieth century, in the context of coal mining “redneck” signified “union man,” whether white or black, in reference to the red bandana that constituted the strikers’ “uniform.”) West wanted Hughes to acknowledge that white supremacy and “redneck” bashing serve to bolster each other rather than standing in opposition—or even in reaction—to each other. In other words, the lesson that West hoped to impart had specificity beyond the optimistic elevation of class-based interracial unity put forth by a number of his contemporaries. He had a more particular—and less common—point to make: don’t fall for the notion that the real racists are working-class whites. That is a trick. Instead, the real racists are the wealthy who have profited from racism, who have built empires from it, both during and after slavery. While acknowledging that racism has taken root in poor white Southerners, that they have “often been in mobs and such like,” West insisted that this is because they “have had their minds filled with poison” by those who profit from mutual distrust or worse between black and white workers. Indeed, there are ways in which West’s body of work prefigures certain theoretical frameworks of whiteness studies, because his poetics depends on the ways in which labor and economics have created the two mutually defining categories of “white” and “black.” West concluded his letter by saying,
I still feel that it is the working white man and not the smooth, slick, boss who is the best potential ally of the Negro people in their struggle for equality in the South. And, to put it the other way around, I think also that the Negro people are the best ally of the white workers of the South in their struggle for better conditions, more democracy, etc.
West pursued this notion in his poetry:
Unfortunately, the trick is still quite functional; popular political rhetoric shows that ideologically based criticism of wealthy right-wing politicians is often accomplished by calling them poor—as in the way Sarah Palin’s wealthy family was often called “rednecks” or “snowbillies” and the way Rolling Stone investigative journalist Matt Taibbi compared bailed-out bankers to “a family of hillbillies . . . sleeping nine to a bed.”
Historical evidence supports West’s contention of the closeness between stereotyping of Appalachians and black Americans. James Klotter has shown, for instance, that the stereotypes used to disparage white Appalachians are frequently reapplied versions of the stereotypes used to disparage African Americans. He points out that accounts by the earliest literary writers, historians, folklorists, and sociologists found Appalachians to be wily, superstitious, and lazy, open to visitors but at the same time likely to engage in violence. “Instead of ‘Sambo’ and ‘Nat’ came ‘Abner’ and ‘Joab,'” writes Klotter. (Klotter even quotes one writer’s account of Kentucky mountaineers that dwelled upon how much the group loved to eat watermelons!)
Reviews of West—even some of those in leftist media—condemned him on the very terms in which he sought to move Hughes along. Mainstream reviews bristled over West’s instructive tone, in some cases coming across as angry over his “gettin’ above his raising.” A reviewer in the New Masses, meanwhile, strikingly proves West’s point by citing his inability to get past his own “hillbilly” baggage—first objecting to West’s use of nonstandard forms of English and then adding condescendingly that he supposes it’s still nice to hear progressivism coming from an area where “we thought blood and rope to be eternal phenomena.”
Long after his correspondence with Hughes, West continued to underscore the financial benefit to the bosses of perpetuating this divide. In an introduction to a 1982 reader, In a Land of Plenty, he writes:
That old Southern family stuff that you’ve heard so much about, always meaning the aristocratic, slave-owning tradition, is worn about as thin as the blood of those families today. Our people, the real Southern mass majority of whites, are the ones the Negroes were taught to call “pore white trash.” And we, in turn, were taught the hateful word “N—–.” Nice little trick, isn’t it? Hitler used it, too. And it is still being used today, by the whites from the big houses, who engineer lynchings and make it seem that the responsibility is the white workers.
West was not unaware of what the cost of this had been in the South for black Americans. In another letter, he wrote to Hughes:
God knows any Southern white man should apologize to any man of another color before questioning any statements he may make about the Southern whites, regardless of how bad.
I know it, too.
West makes the same admission in the poem he dedicated to Hughes, “Brown Brother,” acknowledging the category “whiteness” in a way that denaturalizes it:
But West still insists. And he connects his insistence to the radical revision of American history that he—like Hughes—wants to perform. Focusing on the epithet Hughes has used, West writes:
What I am trying to do is to make the word “cracker” mean what it originally meant in Georgia. For a long time Georgia prohibited slavery, you know. Because these early ex-jail bird settlers were set against any form of slavery and oppression. They were the original crackers. They had some damned good ideas and principles, too.
West appeared to be optimistic about the everyday workability of black-white alliance in class struggle: he penned a poem titled “Unity Is an Ax,” a title that, for those from the country, is at once declamatory and homey. In addition to this call to political unity, West seemed to believe that poetic unity is also an ax, as demonstrated concretely by his refusal in 1982, late in his career, to copyright a volume of his poetry, In a Land of Plenty. Instead, he added the instruction that anyone who needs it should use it:
Purposely this book is not copyrighted. Poetry and other creative efforts should be levers, weapons to be used in the people’s struggle for understanding, human rights, and decency. “Art for Art’s sake” is a misnomer. The poet can never be neutral. In a hungry world the struggle between oppressor and oppressed is unending. There is the inevitable question, “Which side are you on?”
To be content with things as they are . . . is to take sides with the oppressor who also wants to keep the status quo. To challenge the power of oppression is the poet’s responsibility. . . .
Thus no copyright, no effort to restrict use. Groups or individuals are welcome to reproduce or use any or all parts of this book.
To concretize the idea of American left-wing poetry as an “intertextual social conversation,” Cary Nelson created one long poem by patching together lines and stanzas from the actual poems of more than a dozen left-wing poets from the 1930s and 1940s. Unfortunately, Nelson’s ahistorical gimmick actually undercuts itself by leveling out the particularities of give and take, by more or less removing the context that Mikhail Bakhtin points out is continually shaping both art and history. And the gimmick misunderstands the nature of the dialogic by turning it monologic, taking out the challenges, the responses, the pushes—and the changes. The relationship of West and Hughes shows us two poets from rather different places and perspectives working out together and in their writing what it would mean to be a poet for radical social change. To be inclined to do this, to want to participate in this social conversation, neither man needed to receive orders from the Communist Party or its organs to create “positive heroes,” romantic factory settings, or glowing portraits of Communists. And furthermore, as they carried out the conversation, they didn’t feel the need to agree all the time—or to maintain the same level of commitment to particular organizations. In other words, when we look at the poetry of Langston Hughes and Don West as a collective endeavor, we are not talking about the artists’ individualism or interiority being squashed by a centralized authority—another cherished American political myth. We are talking about a cooperative and adaptable effort to move toward a radical poetics for the poet-agitator.
2. Don West, Clods of Southern Earth (New York: Boni and Gaer, 1946), n.p.; West to Langston Hughes, September 30, 1943, Langston Hughes Papers, Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (hereafter Langston Hughes Papers). My attention to paratextual matter as meaningful "envelope" is inspired by the brilliant and portable framework of John Sekora's "Black Message/White Envelope: Genre, Authenticity, and Authority in the Antebellum Slave Narrative," Callaloo 10 (1987): 482–515.
3. Alex Hite, "Poetry Books Are Written by Georgians," Atlanta Constitution, August 4, 1946. West nonetheless retains hero status for some, as concretized in the Appalachian Studies Association's Heroes/Heroines of Appalachia commemorative T-shirt series, which featured West in 2001. A shirt in this series has a picture of West and one of his poems in its entirety:
6. "James Still: Interviewed by J. W. Williamson," Interviewing Appalachia: The Appalachian Journal Interviews, 1978–1992, edited by J. W. Williamson and Edwin T. Arnold (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994), 64.
8. Alan Wald, Exiles from a Future Time: The Forging of the Mid-Twentieth-Century Literary Left (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Don West, No Lonesome Road: Selected Prose and Poems, edited by Jeff Biggers and George Brosi (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2004); Chris Green, The Social Life of Poetry: Appalachia, Race, and Radical Modernism (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
12. Paul Tierney, report on Donald Lee West, FBI Records Obtained through Freedom of Information Act: FBI File 100-559, October 27, 1948, http://documents.theblackvault.com/documents/fbifiles/West_Donald_L.-Pittsburgh-3_text.pdf.
42. Matt Taibbi, "Secrets and Lies of the Bailout," Rolling Stone, January 4, 2013, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/secret-and-lies-of-the-bailout-20130104.
43. James C. Klotter, "The Black South and White Appalachia," in Blacks in Appalachia, edited by William Turner, Edward J. Babbell, and Nell Irwin Painter (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1985), 52.