Date of Degree
Robert Reid Pharr
Matthew K. Gold
African American Studies | American Literature | Literature in English, North America, Ethnic and Cultural Minority | Photography | Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies
Langston Hughes, Turkestan, Photography, African American
In June 1932, Langston Hughes landed in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) with a group of mainly African American artists, writers, craftsmen, and activists, to participate in the Soviet propaganda film, Black and White, by Mezhrabpom. When the film project fell apart, Hughes asked permission for the group to visit Central Asia, a request that, as he documents in his essay, “South to Samarkand,” was met with “a pause” by Soviet authorities since tourists and journalists were not permitted to enter Central Asia. He rode on the Trans-Siberian Rail with hanging lamps lighting the small compartment and simple wooden chairs, but no Jim Crow. He left the safety of a guided train tour with his record player, jazz albums, and notebooks to make up his own mind about Soviet Central Asia. Hughes did not speak a word of Turkestani, nor Russian, but armed with French and English, he managed quite a tour of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, built friendships with Russian and Turkestani writers, and wrote one of the first Soviet-commissioned works, a chapbook in English and Russian titled, A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia. My dissertation offers an overlooked angle in the conversation about African American travel to the former Soviet Union started by Allison Blakely’s groundbreaking work, Russia and the Negro: Blacks in Russian History and Thought (1986), Joy Gleason Carew’s Blacks, Reds, and Russians: Sojourners in Search of Soviet Promise (2010), and Meredith L. Roman’s Opposing Jim Crow: African Americans and the Soviet Indictment of Racism 1928-1937 (2012). While much has been written in his published work about his sojourn to the Soviet Union, many scholars have conflated Moscow and Tashkent. I emphasize the specificity of Turkestan, or Central Asia in his work and read his material contrapuntally against Stalinist propaganda material, which follows the “revolutionary imperial paradigm” as coined by Vladislov Zubok. The annotations of the material, and never before translated or published works, hold the center of this dissertation with a critical introduction, a longer chapter on the photographs Hughes took at the cotton kolhoz (collectives), and translations of poetry and marginal notes given to him on this trip. As Prasad Pannian clarifies the contrapuntal, a musical term used by Edward Said in light of reading culture, “The concept of contrapuntality as it binds together multiple melodies and harmonies into a whole, also allows Said to think toward a humanism that connects discrepant experiences and bridges asymmetries to achieve a universal relational humanity that allows for the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan perspective.” Hughes travel writings and photographs proves him to be this kind of cosmopolitan writer. One that is made more poignant because his cosmopolitanism, his freedom of movement transcends, in his travel writings and his photographs, Jim Crow racism.
Saed, Zahera Z., "Langston Hughes in Turkestan: Poems, Photos, and Notebooks 1932–1933" (2018). CUNY Academic Works.
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