I began composing these words some time ago. Indeed, it was before 11 September 2001, a significant date for this essay as prior to that date it concerned the almost wholly unknown world of Central Asia. Then, of course, that changed; what also changed was the obligation of all writers to better understand the Central Asian sphere. Interestingly, on 17 December 2001, the New York Times attempted to make a connection. It printed an article about American soldiers from New York stationed in the turmoil of Afghanistan. The article featured a photograph of two infantrymen, one African American and the other Bangladeshi American, just north of Kabul. The article described how the streetwise, multi-ethnic New York soldiers were comfortable in their new location. One of them is quoted as saying: ‘Who knew I’d be here drinking tea with them?’ Of course, neither The New York Times nor the soldier knew that coloured folks from New York City do have a history of drinking tea with Central Asians, which extends at least as far back as 1932 – and Langston Hughes.
Today Hughes (1902–67) is mainly remembered as the greatest of all African American poets, ‘the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance’, that great outpouring of literature and culture in New York’s black community in the 1920s. Born in the American rural Midwest and raised in several Midwestern cities, Hughes went to New York in 1919 to attend Columbia University but dropped out after a year to work on freight ships and begin a career exclusively devoted to writing. In his lifetime, he published over forty books of poetry, short stories, children’s literature, autobiography and anthologies, and was also among the first black writers of any nation to make his living exclusively from writing.
By the time he was thirty, Hughes had travelled throughout Europe, Africa, the US and the Caribbean, and his work had been translated into four languages. Like many African Americans, Hughes turned politically leftward in the 1930s, against a backdrop of a terrible US system of legal segregation – an American apartheid – including near-slave conditions on southern US farms, widespread lynching, a lack of voting rights and more. For many at that time, international communism held out a beacon of hope, and none shone brighter than that cast by the USSR.
In the spring of 1932, the quasi-Soviet German film agency Meschrabpom worked to recruit a group of black American actors and musicians to help make a film in Moscow. Black and White would depict the terrible conditions of African Americans in the US and thus would share in the Soviet Union’s broader strategy to portray itself as the champion of oppressed and coloured peoples around the world. Hughes rapidly agreed to join the group, and in June 1932 he left New York on the ocean liner Europa with a group of twenty-two fellow Negroes (the honoured term for African Americans at that time), who were supposed to be artists but who were, in fact, mainly young adventurers and leftists. Hughes was the screenwriter, hired to make sure the film well represented the realities of American Negro life. Upon arrival, Soviet Socialist Moscow was a revelation for Hughes and his compatriots. They became minor celebrities as Amerikanski Negrochanski tovarishi (‘American Negro comrades’).
After two months, however, the film project fell apart. An improbable German-Russian script, plus the hope that the US would finally extend diplomatic recognition to the USSR, made the Russians wary of any films that might offend American officials. When the project collapsed in mid-September, about half the group returned to the US and the other half took a short, programmed tour of a few Central Asian cities before returning home. Hughes, however, abandoned the tour group in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and remained for several months in Central Asia.
Hughes had first learned about the Soviet Union at his multicultural Cleveland high school, where he heard about the Russian Revolution from Russian-Jewish classmates who were the children of émigrés. Hughes’ interest was reawakened upon his arrival in the USSR; more specifically, his interest shifted 2,000 km south and east, to Soviet Central Asia. He was interested in this region because it represented, for him, what he called the USSR’s own ‘dusty, coloured, cotton-growing South’. Indeed, the formerly independent Central Asian emirates and khanates became Russian colonies and vassal states in the nineteenth century in part because of Central Asia’s cotton, the price of which had jumped as a result of the US Civil War. (The Tsar’s troops first broke through Tashkent’s walls just twenty days after the last US Confederate troops surrendered.)
Thus, in the fall of 1932, Hughes decided to remain in the Soviet Union and travel to Central Asia. Ordinarily the region was closed, but as an honoured revolutionary poet and representative of oppressed Americans, he secured official permission. From mid-September 1932 to late January 1933, Hughes lived and travelled in Central Asia – particularly in the legendary cities of Tashkent, Samarkand, Bukhara and Ashgabat. During this time he had diverse experiences. As an official guest of the Soviet Writers’ Union, he was taken on tours of hospitals, schools, dams, factories and other Soviet achievements, complete with recitations of endless statistics. He spent a significant time with Central Asian writers, musicians and creative artists in the major cities, who received him warmly. Hughes also visited the Central Asian countryside, particularly the cotton collectives (kolkhoz) that reminded him of the plantations of the US South, yet which differed massively from them. He alternated between discussions with elite Central Asian cultural figures and simple meals with the humblest of people.
Improbably, Hughes spent several weeks in the company of the great Hungarian thinker and writer Arthur Koestler, who was later to become a world-famous anti-communist but was then, like Hughes, a wandering young radical fascinated by the Soviet experiment. In late January 1933 Hughes decided to end his Central Asian stay. He returned to Moscow, took the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok, visited Korea, spent several weeks in China, sojourned in Japan, got thrown out by the Japanese secret police as an agitating radical and finally returned to the US on 9 August 1933.
Hughes’ Central Asian travels were funded by his writing, including money received for the Russian translation rights to one of his novels, and also for the Uzbek-language rights to a book of poems drawn partly from his 1926 The Weary Blues. With this Uzbek volume, Langston Hyuz She’rlari (‘Poems by Langston Hughes’), he became the first American writer translated into any Central Asian language. He also wrote articles on Central Asia for Izvestia, drafted poetry and worked on assisted translations of Russian and Uzbek poets.
After Hughes returned to the US, his Izvestia articles were collected into a small English-language book published in Moscow and Leningrad called A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, which compared Soviet Central Asia with the US South. Some 1,500 copies were printed, but only two of them are known to exist today: one is in a Moscow library, and the other, Hughes’ own copy, is held in the Hughes archive at Yale University. The mystery behind the disappearance of the other 1,498 books remains.
Once back in the US, Hughes continued to write. From 1934 to 1938 he placed seven Central Asian items in American periodicals, ranging from a radical extract in the socialist magazine New Masses to two surprisingly challenging essays in the glossy monthly Travel, as well as a titillating true-life story called ‘In an Emir’s Harem’ in the popular (and very white) Woman’s Home Companion. In the late 1930s Hughes began work on a Central Asian memoir titled From Harlem to Samarkand, but never completed it. After more Central Asia writing in the 1940s, in 1954 Hughes began his memoir I Wonder as I Wander, a 405-page compendium of his global travels from 1931 to 1938, which included ninety pages on Central Asia. It is, in some sense, a miracle that they exist at all; having once been an energetic leftist, Hughes became a target of the right wing during the McCarthy era and nearly saw his writing life destroyed.
By the mid-1950s, that Hughes chose to write at all – and not negatively – about the Soviet experiment is remarkable. However, the price he paid for doing so was evident in the genial tone that suppressed I Wonder as I Wander’s political edge. J. Saunders Redding’s contemporary review of Hughes’ memoir closed with a suggestion that ‘Mr. Hughes, it seems, did more wandering than wondering.’
A more politically charged version of Hughes’ time in the ‘Soviet South’ can be found in A Negro Looks at Central Asia. There, at the very start of his short book, he writes:
To an American Negro living in the northern part of the United States the word South has an unpleasant sound, an overtone of horror and of fear. For it is in the South that our ancestors were slaves for three hundred years, bought and sold like cattle. It is in the South today that we suffer the worst forms of racial persecution and economic exploitation – segregation, peonage and lynching. Yet it is in the South that two-thirds of my people live: a great Black Belt stretching from Virginia to Texas, across the cotton plantations of Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi, down into the orange groves of Florida and the sugar cane lands of Louisiana. […]
Last spring I came almost directly out of this American South to the Soviet Union. You can imagine the contrast. And after a summer in Moscow, last September, I found myself packing up to go South again – but, this time, South under the red flag. I was starting out from Moscow, capital of the new world, bound for Central Asia to discover how the people live and work there. I wanted to compare their existence with that of the colored and oppressed peoples I had known under capitalism in Cuba, Haiti, Mexico, and my own United States. I wanted to study the life of these people in the Soviet Union, and write a book about them for the dark races of the capitalist world.
Later, in a chapter called ‘White Gold in Soviet Asia’, Hughes extends this theme of contrast and of the hopefulness of Central Asia in a specific comparison of cotton fields in both locales:
In the autumn, if you step off the train almost anywhere in the fertile parts of Central Asia, you step into a cotton field or into a city or town whose streets are filled with evidences of cotton nearby. The natives call it ‘white gold’. On all the dusty roads, camels, carts and trucks loaded with the soft fiber go towards the gins and warehouses. Outside the towns, oft-times as far as the eye can see, the white balls lift their precious heads.
The same thing is true of the southern part of the United States. In Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, you ride for hundreds of miles through fields of cotton bursting white in the sun. Except that on our roads there are no camels. Mules and wagons bear the burdens. And at home, cotton is not so valuable anymore with the crisis on and the factories closed. And, too, whereas here the textile mills run full blast, in America many of them are closed or working part time. There’s really a vast difference between Turkmenistan and Alabama. And a world between.
Further into the book, Hughes speaks about the many groups of Central Asian schoolchildren he meets, and how he consistently finds them impressive:
I met many teachers and students and had a chance to talk to them. How different, I discovered, was the Soviet students’ attitude from that of the American student. At home, with most students, football and other sports occupy a leading place in their conversations. Here in Turkmenia, students held passionate conversations about the progress of life under the first ‘five-year plan’, the growth of literature under the Soviets, the plans of the imperialists beyond the borders. Here in a remote corner of Asia, I found young people asking intelligent and penetrating questions about happenings in France, Cuba, Mexico and other countries where I had been.
Towards the end of A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, Hughes reports on his visit to an electro-chemical plant outside Tashkent and the great promise that such transformation held. Speaking of a young Uzbek named Tajaiv who was working on the project, he writes
His dark round young face was aglow with their big achievement, and with the much bigger achievements to follow at this place: Chirchikstroy – light and power and chemicals for all that section of Asia. Tajaiv would build it – his hard young hands. They had the power to transform the whole future. To build, to build, to build.
Now I know why the nearby Indian Empire trembles and Africa stirs in a wretched sleep. Chirchikstroy will throw such a light on the southern sky! In Soviet Asia there are a million Tajaivs with strong hands and young hearts proud of new buildings on new land in a new world. A million Tajaivs who will build and build and build! And the light will shine not only on their sky alone.
Finally, Hughes, while in Central Asia, became captivated by the legendary dancer Tamara Khanum, with whom he spent much time during his visit. Here is his rhapsodic report of Tamara Khanum in performance:
It was in the third act of this picturesque musical drama that I first saw Tamara Khanum. As a dancer at some wild mountain court where the queen’s throne was set among the rocks, to a deafening whir of drums and wail of flutes, suddenly from the wings in a velvet coat and soft high leather boots, straight across the stage there came a human vibrance like an electric magnet, instantly pulling the whole audience into the dynamic stride of her dancing feet. Had Gertrude Stein been there, surely a bell would have rung – for that vibrance, stamping out a swiftly postured rhythm before the queen, was Tamara Khanum, Eastern genius of the dance.
Primitive and strong like the wind that sweeps across the Kyzyl Kum and roars in the passes of the Pamirs; clean-cut and sharp as the sky-peaks of the Hindu Kush; neither male nor female, but wind-like, torrent-like, sand-like, suddenly her dance ended. Whirling into the wings, the electric magnet released a thousand hands into a roar of applause. To appease the shouting audience, the drums and cymbals, the flutes and barabans [bass drums] suddenly began for the second time their cloud-burst of rhythm and the dance was repeated, ending with the same dynamic disappearance and the same roar of hands…Her name is known in all the cities of the Soviet East from the Caspian to the Chinese border.
Throughout his writing on Central Asia, Hughes expressed a deep sense of connection between his own situation and that of the Central Asians whom he encountered. His comparisons were certainly political, but perhaps more importantly he connected with his Central Asian counterparts on a human level. After returning from these travels and re-entering the US in the summer of 1933, Hughes never again visited the Soviet Union, and he let virtually all of his Central Asian contacts lapse. There is no question, though, that a great many of these progressive, artistic members of the Central Asian intelligentsia (though not elites like Gafur Gulam and Tamara Khanum) would have perished in the last years of the 1930s and perhaps during World War Two. With respect to the dark side of the USSR, Hughes may, to be sure, have been naïve. It is also clear that his visit was carefully managed by his Soviet handlers such that he did not see, or chose not to see, many of the terrible events that were just beginning to happen in the region at that time. Perhaps history, or his Central Asian readers, will forgive him.
Today, of course, the region presents a different face to the world – encompassing new economic development, energy resources, social and political change and more – but we would do well to recall an older, different and hopefully still enduring connection between the US and the people of Central Asia. We can find this and much more in the great African American poet’s writings on the region.