Langston Hughes was both a member of the executive board of PEN America from 1945 until 1949, and, because of his global literary importance, has been a central voice and resource for more recent PEN events and campaigns.
An outspoken civil rights campaigner who used his growing fame as a poet to speak out racial issues, Hughes was involved with the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 1921. Before becoming a PEN member, he used his literary status to help pressurise PEN America on behalf of black civil rights. In 1935 he formed part of the New York based ‘Committee for the Release of Jacques Roumain’, which campaigned on behalf of Haitian writer, Roumain, who was leader of the nationalist movement in Haiti against the US occupation from 1915-1934. He was imprisoned four times between 1928 and 1936, but this had not prevented him from founding the Haiti Communist Party in 1934. Along with Hughes the committee was also sponsored by other members of the Harlem Renaissance, including Jean Toomer.
The group demanded that US PEN Delegate, Henry Canby to raise Roumain’s case at the 1935 Barcelona PEN Congress. Canby duly did so, and argued that an ‘error of justice had been committed’, and moved that the Government of Haiti be asked to reconsider the case. The motion was carried unanimously. It was the first time the PEN Executive had granted itself the authority to defend an imprisoned writer in a country which had never had a PEN centre.
During Hughes’ time on the Executive Board of PEN America, the organisation a faced some key challenges, most notably PEN’s evolving relationship with the United Nations, whether centres in Germany and Italy could be reconstituted, as well as the conflicts of the emerging Cold War.
In 1960, when Hughes was awarded the NAACAP’s Springarn Medal, he spoke of his political and literary priorities: he could only accept the medal ‘in the name of the Negro people who have given me the materials out of which my poems and stories, plays and songs have come, and who, over the years, have given me as well their love and understanding and support. Without them on my part there would have been no poems, without their hopes and fears and dreams, no stories. Without their struggles, no dramas; without their music, no songs. Had I not heard as a child in the little churches of Kansas and Missouri “Deep river, my home is over Jordan” or “My Lord what a mornin’ / When the stars begin to fall,” I might not have come to realize the lyric beauty of living poetry.’
Indeed, Hughes’ poetry still provides a touchstone for PEN America, featuring regularly in events addressing a range of topics from the surveillance state, to race. Hughes’ writing and activism touched on so many areas of American life, from race and slavery to chain gangs, religion to Jim Crow, scenes of the rural South and bustling accounts of life in New York, it lends itself to almost every occasion offering clear-eyed and prescient wisdom applicable to topics from to Black Lives Matter to poverty and austerity. Certainly poems like ‘Oppression’ though outwardly about race in America, might seem to epitomise PEN’s own free expression mission.
PEN celebrated Hughes’ one hundredth birthday in 2002 with a Twentieth Century Masters Tribute event featuring Hughes himself reading one of his earliest poems ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’ and a host of poets and admirers contributing readings and thoughts on Hughes’ influence on American art, politics and life.