THE BLOG
10/24/2011 09:51 am ET Updated Dec 24, 2011

Politics and the Misuse of Langston Hughes

When I was writing my first book on African American religion in Chicago, I rediscovered Langston Hughes. His vivid depictions of worship in the storefront churches he attended on the South Side in the early 1920s captured the ethos of those spaces and set the tone for the stories I would tell about them. He recalled that he was "entranced by their stepped up rhythms, tambourines, hand clapping and uninhibited dynamics" and "mesmerized by the highly musical sermons screamed, shouted and intoned from the pulpit by ministers just out of the South, come North to save souls." He was thrilled by what he witnessed and I was inspired by what he wrote.

Like many Americans, I had been introduced to Hughes as a youth in school. Poems of such artistry as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Mother to Son," "Let America Be America Again" and "I, too, Sing America" were read, taught, memorized and recited in classes and assemblies with some frequency. Long after he was the "Poet Laureate of Harlem," he became the poet laureate of nearly every Middle, Junior and Senior high school in America, particularly those with large African American populations. All these years later, Hughes is now central to the book I am writing about Harlem and American religion.

Recently, Langston Hughes has been discovered, dare I say for the first time, by two Republican politicians currently vying for the GOP presidential nomination. Back in April former Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum launched his bid with the campaign slogan, "Fighting to Make America America Again," immediately recognized as a riff on the Hughes poem, "Let America Be America Again." When he was informed that Hughes was perhaps gay and a left-leaning liberal who was anti-capitalist and pro-union, Santorum backtracked, pitching Hughes and his poem under the bus. "I had nothing to do with that," he said. "I've read some of [Hughes's] poems. I'm not a big poetry guy."

And then it happened again. A few weeks ago, after what was widely viewed as another underwhelming debate performance, Rick Perry ended his remarks by quoting Hughes. First establishing his bona fides as the son of tenant farmers, a former military serviceman and former governor of Texas, Perry claimed that he was the one with "CEO experience" and expertise in the private sector to answer the call of those "begging for someone to make America America again." Doubtlessly having now been informed of the origin of the phrase, he has not used it again.

For Santorum and Perry to invoke Langston Hughes in their bids for the Republican presidential nomination is a disheartening misuse of the poet. Santorum is rabidly anti-gay and has publically proclaimed his intention to roll back all progressive measures with regard to gay rights under his administration. He has not shrunk away from his comparisons of homosexuality to incest and its apparent negative impact on society and "traditional values." Perry has recently cozied up to anti-gay activists and has signed the National Organization for Marriage Pledge, which supports a federal amendment banning same sex marriage. In his 2008 book, "On My Honor" he compared homosexuality to alcoholism and called it a "choice" one makes. "Even if someone is attracted to a person of the same sex," he wrote, "he or she still makes a choice to engage in sexual activity with someone of the same gender."

But the misuse of Hughes by these anti-gay politicians is not merely because Hughes was gay. In actual fact, it is not clear if Hughes was gay. Since his death in 1967 some of his closest friends have confessed that they do not know if Hughes was same-sex attracted. Others, however, remain so convinced of his homosexuality that they think the very question is ridiculous. Perhaps he is best described as a "queer" poet with close connections to and affinities for the gay world that surrounded him.

What is absolutely clear, however, is where Hughes stood politically, and it is on this point that his misuse is most shocking. Santorum and Perry employed the words of Hughes as representative of political agendas to which Hughes would have been adamantly opposed. (Mind you, this happens to Jesus all the time.) Hughes's political sensibilities were rooted in the plight of the poor, the marginalized and the disenfranchised, not the rich, powerful and politically connected. To the extent that he had a political "agenda" it was based on his concern for the masses of Americans that were lowest down and a social vision that was inclusive and all embracing. Indeed, that was the core message of the poem, "Let America Be America Again."

O, let my land be a land where liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

O, let America be America again --
The land that never has been yet --
And yet must be -- the land where every man is free.

I understand Santorum's and Perry's attraction to this poem, but both men would have to make some serious alterations to their political platforms in order for it to accurately reflect their vision of America. The fact that they have distanced themselves from Hughes and his poem makes clear that they didn't really understand it, and that their vision of America is for some Americans and is not the "homeland of the free" Hughes dreamed of.