“Dancing with Langston Hughes,” Essay by M.W. Rishell

MW Rishell

MW Rishell

We should always be wary of posthumous publications, as it is likely the author held the work back for one reason or another.  Seldom are things simply lost to time.  But the hunger for more work from our departed authors of legend always overrules these reservations.

 The New Yorker has circulated, online on May 30 and for print in its June 6th and 13th double issue on fiction, “Seven People Dancing,” a previously unreleased short story by Langston Hughes.  Deborah Treisman (the fiction editor of The New Yorker) offers that Arnold Rampersad (a noted expert on Hughes) found the narrative in the Langston Hughes papers at Yale roughly thirty years ago.  More recently, his colleague David Roessel came across the work and pushed for its publication. Many are cautious with new additions to the individual canon.  In this case with Langston Hughes, there is reason to rejoice.

As readers, we have to make the choice whether to look at such a work with our contemporary eye, or with an ear to the language and mores of (in this case) 1961.  There is language in “Seven People Dancing” that we might now consider offensive but may have been the coin of the realm when written.  Do we accept this, as we accept The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?  Of course.  But that doesn’t mean that it floats by without notice.  Here, a charitable assessment would note that the language helps focus and identify the message for which Hughes strives.

Hughes envisions the future, from the eyes of 1961. This is a hopeful slant, and the party house – full of things beautiful and celebratory and enjoyable – is a caged and ongoing reaction to the establishment. The joys within are held close, yet our 2016 selves know these embraced illegalities will become – if not part of the mainstream – more common and not worth a second look across the cultural milieu.

Most especially, Hughes is writing about miscegenation (as it was then known). As literati we are schooled to separate a story from its author so to ultimately judge the essence of the work on its own. But one can’t help but notice similarities here between key aspects of Hughes’s personal life and the characters in the narrative.  Hughes is multi-ethnic, and the three couples dancing show heterosexual relationships of the time from both racial and social perspectives.  There is an establishment couple (the couple just there . . . like chairs in a room), one with a likely mixed-color partner (the woman . . . was the color of green tea in an off-white cup), and one with a white girl (not a tramp).  Marcel, a key character of the narrative, is a gay man not thinking of sailors but rather “an old fairy who had lost interest in uniforms.”  Toward the end of Hughes’s life there was considerable debate about whether he was homosexual or asexual.  This character seems to be both.

There are also issues of class and wealth and identity contained in this tight narrative, along with interesting shifts of perspective.  But one cannot ignore the “big mahogany combination” that plays records of change – in this case by Dizzy Gillespie – that help establish a combustible combination that will anger some overtly and many covertly over the coming years.

In my first read of “Seven People Dancing,” I was captured and enraptured by its sonics.  While the story contains brilliant descriptions, the alliteration and assonance – “the warm wonderful music, danceable but boppish, spiked with modern chords and flatted fifths” – romances readers and their inner writer and shows that Hughes, even with this posthumous piece, a buried time capsule, is worthy of worship.

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