Saturday, April 14, 2012

Langston Hughes: The Spanish Civil War Poems

'Fascists is Jim Crow people,honey...and here, we shoot 'em down' (Langston Hughes, Dear Folks At Home)
 A recent presentation at the Cervantes Center in New York City of the first books to come out of BAAM (Biblioteca Afro-Americana de Madrid, African-American Library of Madrid) -- Texts about Spain by Langston Hughes and From Mississippi to Madrid by James Yates -- offered ready access to the perspective of a cadre of activist mid-20th century African-Americans on the issues of fascism, colonialism, racism and freedom.

Of the two books, Hughes’s is the more interesting for devotees of poetry, consisting of an impressive collection of chronicles, poems and excerpts from his memoirs.

Hughes was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, and after six months there, came back with the material experience for a series of six poems inspired by what he saw.

While not considered the poet’s most well known work, some critics call these poems some of Hughes’ most bitter social commentary, uniquely immediate and intense.

The politics is palpable. In them, he pointedly links racism with fascism -- but also, links both to colonialism, offering a singular perspective on where the culpability lay in what was arguably a mid-century struggle between established and incipient imperialist European nations for colonial power.

'I looked across to Africa/and seed foundations shaking' he writes in "We Captured A Wounded Moor Today." ‘…Cause if a Free Spain wins this war/the colonies too are free…'

I guess that’s why old England
And I reckon Italy, too
Is afraid to let a worker’s Spain
Be too good to me and you
Because they got slaves in Africa
And they don’t want em to be free.

There’s plenty of compassion and pathos in the poems, as well. ‘…the dead birds wheel East/to their lairs again/leaving iron eggs/in the streets of Spain…‘ he writes in "Air Raid: Barcelona," ‘…the stench of their passage/remains when they’re gone.'

In "Song of Spain," Hughes reaches to the raw, dark power of the Spanish notion of ‘duende' and calls on the common people to ‘drive the bombers out of Spain/drive the bombers out of the world…I must take the world for my own again.’

This theme -- driving out the violence of war -- reaches a crescendo in "Madrid, 1937"

Put out the lights and stop the clocks.
Let time stand still.
Again, man mocks himself
And all his human will to build and grow!

The fact and symbol of man’s woe,
…the ever minus of the brute,
The nothingness of barren land
And stone and metal,
The emptiness of gold.

The horror and emptiness of war fought for gold is a tale told by many over the centuries. But in hammering home the notion that fascism, racism and colonialism, in the middle of the twentieth century, were different faces of the same animal, Langston Hughes was offering a challenging synthesis of view.

'We are the people who have long known in actual practice the meaning of the word fascism,’ he told an international gathering of writers in Paris in 1937, at the height of the Jim Crow era of racial discrimination in America. 'In many states Negroes are not permitted to vote or hold office…freedom of movement is greatly hindered, especially if we happen to be sharecroppers…we know what it is to be refused admission to schools and colleges, to theaters and concert halls, to hotels and restaurants…In America, Negroes do not have to be told what fascism is in action. We know.'

Langston Hughes' Spanish Civil War poems may not be his best known -- but they offer critical dimension to our understanding the complexity of the politics, perception and social witness of one of America's most important 20th century poets.


  1. In a world with so many -isms, Langston still rocked.

  2. Hughes unique perspective and reflective writings skills are impressive and quite useful to teaching youth the role of critical thinking and writing. This Sunday, I will host my 4th Langston Hughes Book Fair. Empowerment Temple, Baltimore, MD. contact: or on facebook.