Seeking roots of discrimination

A comparative examination of Langston Hughes's and Richard Wright's essays and newspaper columns of social protest

Intermediate Examination Paper 2002 24 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
1.1 Why and Wherefore
1.2 Methodological Reflection

2. Types of Discrimination

3. Common Denominators

4. Root Causes

5. Breaking the Cycle of Discrimination


Appendix: Resources

“The truth is that our world- a world for all men, black, brown, yellow, and white- will either be all rational or totally irrational.” Richard Wright

1. Introduction 1.1 Why and Wherefore

Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, among the most prolific of American writers, gained international attention and acclaim in nearly every genre of writing, including poetry, the short story, the novel, drama, the libretto, the autobiography, journalistic prose, children's and adolescent literature and song lyrics. Although much of their writing, often expressing social protest, was easily accessible to scholars and general readers, there is one genre —the essay— that has gone largely unnoticed. Yet such essays and short, non-fiction passages contribute significantly to Hughes’s and Wright’s work, striving for racial equality on a local level, a national, as well as global levels.

At first glance, it may appear fruitless to compare the non-fiction works of Hughes and Wright, since the writers became famous for their poetry and fictional masterpieces. Also, a comparison between Wright’s rather epic artistic style and Hughes’s dense, often ironic prose may seem unlikely and difficult. Yet, on closer inspection, you will find that both writers are surprisingly close to one another in their way of thinking, and their conclusions often overlap.

Hughes was a columnist for the famous African-American newspaper, the “Chicago Defender,” where he commented on contemporary issues and chronicled the hopes and despairs of his people. In spite of the different origins of the writers, Hughes and Wright were confronted early on with race discrimination and segregation, publicly know as “Jim Crow-ism[1],” which was identified and condemned in their essays. Although Hughes is best known as a folk poet, he channelled some of his most powerful critiques of economic and racial exploitation and oppression through the essay genre, reflecting on contemporary issues ranging from the death of the Dean of Women at Fisk University, who was denied treatment at a white hospital, to the infamous Scottsboro Case, where nine young black men were accused of raping two white women after a fight with a group of white men.[2] The essay as a literary form also allowed Hughes to document the essential contributions of African Americans to United States literature, music, film, and theatre and to chronicle the immense difficulties that black artists faced in gaining recognition, fair remuneration, and professional advancement for these contributions. Finally, it was in his essays that Hughes most fully represented the unique and endearing persona of the blues poet in exile,[3] often supported by extensive use of irony and metaphorical language.

Richard Wright examines the long tradition of western civilisation’s oppression over the people of Asia and Africa, frequently adopting a historical perspective, and exposes the deep contradictions between western civilisations' values and actions. He questions white man’s logic and closely analyzes the roots of racism. In his view, racism not only originates in categorization processes and determinism but was caused and is constantly reproduced by religion and age-old traditions which, for Wright, are responsible for irrational human behaviour.

During the 1930s, both authors faced the consequences of the great depression and began to question the capitalist system through their literary work. Even though Hughes, in contrast to Wright, never joined the communist party[4], both openly expressed their sympathy toward and engagement with socialist ideologies[5]. Both writers met at the American Writers' Congress in 1935 and participated in the creation of the League of American Writers, “a voluntary association of writers dedicated to the preservation and extension of a truly democratic culture.”[6] They subsequently lived and worked in Harlem, New York City, and Chicago, where both were involved in writing for local newspapers. In addition, they shared a common interest in travelling to Europe, particularly to France and Spain. Wright chose to emigrate to Paris in 1947, a place where he experienced the freedom he felt lacked at home, while Hughes sought temporary refuge from American class prejudice and racial discrimination abroad that, for various reasons, seemed more conducive to the spirit and ideals of democracy than his own nation.

To compare Hughes’ essays to those of Richard Wright not only seems fruitful to me not only because both authors were African-Americans and contemporaries but because they reached the same universal conclusions though their original class differences couldn’t have been any greater. Coming out of two different social environments, each of the authors addresses the same problem - the lack of freedom in connection with injustices towards any oppressed individual or group locally or globally and, most importantly, regardless of race.[7]

1.2 Methodological Reflection

This paper surveys and contextualizes key facts found in the essayistic non-fiction of Hughes and Wright. The first part of this cultural studies approach will locate both the differences and the common denominators in the core problems both authors address in their essays. For a better understanding of these problems, and prior to their possible abolishment, the paper will point out root causes responsible for the lack of freedom in the United States and the world. Then, we will take a closer look at how the authors claim discrimination processes work and in which ways they are reproduced.[8] After briefly examining the stylistic means by which Hughes and Wright support their statements, the paper will finally try to compare the tasks necessary to abolish discrimination on an individual, social, and institutional level.

The paper shall introduce to students and scholars a significant body of work that has, up to today, received little critical attention. The examination will be based on Wright’s essay: “Tradition and Industrialization”, published in his book “White Man,

Listen!”[9] and a collection of shorter newspaper articles, essays and speeches by Hughes, that will be compared to Wright’s longer, more universal essay.

The examined articles are:

- “Southern Gentlemen, White Prostitutes, Mill-Owners, and Negroes”, published in “Contempo”[10], 1931,
- “Brown America in jail: Kilby”[11], published in “Opportunity”[12], 1932,
- “Cowards from the Colleges”, published in “The Crisis”[13], 1934,
- “To Negro Writers”, a speech held at the first American Writers' Congress[14], 1935,
- “Democracy and Me”, a speech at the second American Writers' Congress, 1937,
- “No Half-Freedoms”, “America after the War”, “The World After the War”, “The Fall of Berlin”, “They must be red”, “Concerning the Future of Asia”, all printed in the “Chicago Defender” (1943-1962).

2. Types of Discrimination

Discrimination can be found on three main levels: the individual level, the group or class level and the institutional level, nationally as well as internationally.

For the individual, discrimination is always present and is experienced through segregation (for example in theatres or public transportation) or in everyday situations between ourselves and the Other. These experiences are often due to the false projection of colored people as dumb or dangerous, which result in deeply rooted forms of racism and sexism. As an example, Hughes relates his personal experiences with such ignorant views in his essay “Cowards from the Colleges” and his speech “Democracy and Me”.

Discrimination at the group level points to distinct economic injustices and disadvantages, especially for black writers, who are excluded from publishing groups and denied professional job opportunities. This form of discrimination through keeping blacks away from the media makes it almost impossible for the oppressed to influence public opinion, change mentalities and correct their image. Group discrimination also refers to being excluded from labor unions and includes segregation in semi-official institutions like the Red Cross.

Institutional discrimination is perhaps the most important level, for it denies colored people from accessing power structures or breaking out of the vicious cycle of insufficient, limited or manipulated education. Such discrimination institutionalises racism, denies fair representation of colored people in governmental arenas, and makes it impossible for the colored community to change discriminatory laws or prevent unfair court trials as, for example, the infamous Scottsboro Case. Obviously, the effects of racism go far beyond such categories. Not only is racism still present in the constitution of the United States of America, meaning that there is a “racial basis of the state,”[15] but it also derives from a “racial basis of U.S. capitalism,” the examination of which would go far beyond this introductory approach and can't be addressed here.[16]

3. Common Denominators

At the beginning of Wright’s extensive positionality in “Tradition and Industrialization,” he takes into account the general problem of objectivity. Preceding his critique of people’s tendency to categorize information into “either/or” oppositions, he mentions how nowadays, even the “most rigorously determined attitudes of objectivity” have come to be suspect: “In the heated, charged, and violent partisan atmosphere in which we live at this moment, all public utterances are dragged willy-nilly into the service of something or somebody.”[17] This lack of ability to differentiate can be seen, for example, when people who support mass education are accused of harboring secret Soviet sympathies:

For example, he who advocated the use of mass education techniques today can be, and usually is, accused of harboring secret Soviet sympathies, despite the fact that his advocacy of the means of mass education aims at a quick spreading of literacy so that Communism cannot take root, so that vast populations trapped in tribal or religious loyalties cannot be easily duped by self-seeking demagogues.[18]

The same idea, though with a slightly different focus, can be found in Hughes' “They must be red” where people, who believe that Negroes should have equal rights in shops and elsewhere or even just show general solidarity towards colored people must be categorized as Communists:

It seems strange to me that if - as I must admit happens all too rarely in America - people really believe in interracial friendship and decency, they just have to be Communists. Certainly, it is true that the Communist Soviet Union has abolished all racial lines and has succeeded (as even the most biased observers against the USSR admit) in making racial equality work. [...] But it is also true that there are some Americans who are not Communist who believe in equality.[19]

This problem of “black and white” thinking will be referred to again later, for it is one of the root causes of racism the authors condemn, in line with the general problem of “othering,” where any group of people, having been defined as inferior or subordinate, can be deprived of their civil rights and dignity.


[1] Ronald L. F. Davis, “Creating Jim Crow” (Northridge: California State University, 2002), <http://www.iimcrowhistorv.ora/historv/creating.htm>, The term Jim Crow originated in a song performed by Daddy Rice, a white minstrel show entertainer in the 1830s. Rice covered his face with charcoal paste or burnt cork to resemble a black man, and then sang and danced a routine in caricature of a silly black person. By the 1850s, this Jim Crow character, one of several stereotypical images of black inferiority in the nation's popular culture, was a standard act in the minstrel shows of the day. How it became a term synonymous with the brutal segregation and disfranchisement of African Americans in the late nineteenth-century is unclear. What is clear, however, is that by 1900, the term was generally identified with those racist laws and actions that deprived African Americans of their civil rights by defining blacks as inferior to whites, as members of a caste of subordinate people.

[2] Thomas A. Mikolyzk, Langston Hughes: A Bio-Bibliography, rev.ed., Bio-Bibliograpies in Afro- American and African Studies, Number 2 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990) 13.

[3] Following my personal understanding, Hughes was suggesting that the Negro, though he is languished in the corners of American society, finds himself in exile in his own land.

[4] Langston Hughes, “Introduction by Faith Berry,” Good Morning, Revolution (New York: Lawrence Hill, 1973) xiii. "Hughes was never a member of the Communist party, though indeed he once had been sympathetic to it, a fact he did not deny (without apologising) during the McCarthy hearings”.

[5] “Socialist ideologies” here are not be set equal with “communism”, however, these terms were often used synonymously in the United States. See also: “Black and White Thinking” - The Lack of ability to differentiate, in the paragraph examining root causes for discrimination processes.

[6] Hughes 123.

[7] Robert Felgar, Richard Wright rev.ed., Twayne's United States Authors Series 386 (Tusas: Twayne, 1980) 9. “But the most provoking theme of Wright's, “The secret of race is that there is no secret,” has been persistently resisted. For instance and notably, Native Son, which deals with Bigger Thomas, a stunted black man who kills two women and goes to his execution ostensibly feeling morally triumphant because of the murders, has caused controversy to rage over the meaning of its ending [...]. Abused and despised as Bigger was, anyone could become a Bigger Thomas; it is environment, not racial predisposition, that produces human monsters.”

[8] What is meant by reproduction of discrimination processes can be made clear by Wright's first essay in White man, Listen!- “The Psychological Reactions Of Oppressed People”. Here, Wright explains, that victims of discrimination often contribute to their own oppression; i.e. the oppressed people are those with “frog perspectives”: they are able to only look myopically up to the victors over them; they are unable to assess their own positions except to consider them as low and humble.

[9] Richard Wright, „Tradition and Industrialization,“ White Man, Listen!, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1957) 74.

[10] Hughes 139. „Contempo“ [was] a publication of some of the students at the University of North Carolina.

[11] Hughes 47. “In December 1931, he [Hughes] visited Kilby Prison [Alabama], where he read his poems to the Scottsboro inmates.

[12] Gale Group Databases, <http://www.galegroup.com/free_resources/bhm/literature/opportunity.htm> , “Opportunity was intended as a vehicle for new black writers and as a competitor with the activist journal Crisis”.

[13] The Crisis Magazine Online, <http://www.thecrisismagazine.com/about.htm> ,“In 1910, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois founded THE CRISIS magazine as the premier crusading voice for civil rights. Today, THE CRISIS, one of the oldest black periodicals in America, continues this mission. A respected journal of thought, opinion and analysis, the magazine was and still remains the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and is the NAACP's articulate partner in the struggle for human rights for people of color.

[14] Hughes 123. “The American Writers' Congress was organised in early 1935, with the support of over 200 authors, including Nelson Algren, Van Wyck Brooks, Erskine Caldwell, Malcom Cowley, Theodore Dreiser, James Farrell, Waldo Frank, Josephine Herbst, Granville Hicks, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Lincoln Steffens and Richard Wright. [...] The congress held four national conferences in New York City in 1935, 1937, 1939 and 1941.

[15] Steve Valocchi, “The Racial Basis of Capitalism and the State, and The Impact of the New Deal on African Americans. Social Problems, 41.3. (1994): 347-362.

[16] Valocchi states another interesting fact supportive of dicrimination in the New Deal measures of the 1930s.

[17] Wright 74.

[18] Wright 75.

[19] Christopher C. Santis, ed., „Are You a Communist?“, Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics and Culture (Chicago: University of Illionois Press, 1995) 181.


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
537 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
Humboldt-University of Berlin – Department of English and American Studies
Seeking Introduction Cultural Science Thirties Roots Discrimination African American Alienation Richard Wright Langston Hughes newspaper articles non-fiction



Title: Seeking roots of discrimination