Langston Hughes: Poet Laureate
On 26 March 1953, Hughes was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he fielded a barrage of questions about his previous involvement with communism. Hughes testified that he was not and had never been a member of the Communist party, and he distanced himself from some of his more radical poems of the past, saying that they had been misinterpreted. Leftists criticized Hughes after his testimony, saying that he had backed down too easily. (Hughes's questioning came near the end of McCarthy's infamous witch hunt. By fall of that year, McCarthy began his disastrous investigation into the U.S. Army, a miscalculation that ended his committee and fatally wounded his career.)
With that incident behind him, Hughes spent the last decade of his life working on a variety of projects, many of which focused on the achievements of the black community. He wrote biographies (Famous Negro Heroes of America, Marian Anderson: Famous Concert Singer), children's books (Popo and Fifina, The First Book of Jazz), and an illustrated pictorial of Harlem (Sweet Flypaper of Life). Hughes also took on Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, an ambitious epic poem set to music that was never performed during his lifetime. I Wonder as I Wander, the second volume of his autobiography, appeared in 1956. He also reaped the recognition a poet laureate certainly deserves in his golden years. On 30 December 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievement by a black American, calling him the "poet laureate of the Negro race."
Langston Hughes died in New York City on 22 May 1967, following complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer. He was cremated and his ashes were interred beneath a medallion in the floor of the Arthur Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library located in his beloved Harlem. His townhouse on East 127th Street was later declared a city landmark. At the time of Langston Hughes's death, a new era of black consciousness was coming of age in Harlem. This was the generation of Black Power and the Black Panthers, who had grown militant and tired of waiting for liberation. Many of them rejected the politics of Hughes's generation as too soft, too pliable, too patient with the way things were. But whether they knew it or not, the Panthers stood on Langston Hughes's shoulders. He had predicted their generation, as surely as he knew his own.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?19