04 April 2009

A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, by Langston Hughes

Of historical rather than literary interest (though there is the occasional lyrical phrase), this short monograph is Langston Hughes' glowing description of a trip around the USSR in 1934. Hughes sees the USSR as a kind of paradise; a cultural melting pot with universal education, no discrimination, and an inspired population committed to the nation's political goals. The contrasts to the US are biting, but it can't be ignored that Hughes clearly missed a lot of what was going on in the USSR at the time. He says that one man "refuses to speak of the pogroms", for instance, but himself doesn't really mention them, or allow them to blemish his view of the population as being open and tolerant. When traveling in Uzbekistan, he strives to learn about folk art and music, and is surprised that no one wants to talk about it: "Whatever the reason, they would talk only about the new dramas and their political importance and Soviet meaning", he says. It doesn't seem to occur to him that maybe there's a more sinister reason for this, or if it does, he doesn't mention it. Given that the text was published in the USSR, it's possible he really couldn't have given anything but a good review. The book reads rather like pro-Soviet propaganda, but simultaneously, the attacks on the US are indubitably honest, and perhaps could not have been so strongly voiced in an American publication. So in that sense, it is perhaps a more valuable book in terms of its depictions of the US than of the USSR. Of particular interest is the scathing critique of the Church in the US and its hypocrisy. I'm increasingly intrigued by this issue; the way that Christianity has simultaneously been a kind of backbone of African American culture, and a great comfort, while also often being a tool of oppression. And the awareness of that fact in so many authors. I still don't quite know what to make of it.

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