A black man in Turkmenistan: Langston Hughes’ 1932 account of Soviet Central Asia

Below are scans of the communist and Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ copy of his own short tract on Soviet Central Asia, from 1932. It was published under the title A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, and includes copious editorial notation and marginalia around the text. Hughes was known as something of a perfectionist, so it’s not surprising at all that he would submit something he wrote to such rigorous scrutiny.

The introductory remark provided by the publisher is slightly misleading, reflecting a political policy adopted by the Stalinist Comintern toward the black population in the Southern United States. Describing Hughes as “the son of an oppressed nationality,” the brief note suggests that he will testify to “the achievements of formerly oppressed nationalities under the banner of the Soviets.” At the time, Moscow’s line on “the Negro question” in the US was that blacks in the South — especially along the so-called “Black Belt,” areas where they held a sizable majority — constituted a separate nation which ought to be granted autonomy, i.e. the right of national self-determination.

Readers can learn more about this disastrous official stance here in Benjamin Blumberg’s excellent essay “Race and the Left in America: An Unmet Challenge.” For now, we turn to the text. What were Hughes’ impressions of life in Soviet Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan?

Langston Hughes, mellon-sellers in the market of Tashkent. Soviet central Asia, U.S.S.R

Many of his attitudes and opinions, it must be said, would likely shock and offend today’s self-proclaimed “Marxists.” Hughes unabashedly celebrated the secularization process then underway in these territories, inaugurated by the Soviet authorities working in tandem with local communists and fellow-travelers. The struggle against religious tradition was not restricted to gender integration and secular education in school reform, but extended to the public sphere and culture in general.  “Illiteracy, not only of children but of adults, has been greatly reduced,” wrote Hughes, enthusiastically. “The cells of the madrases are empty, and the schools of the state are overcrowded. Already to the youth today, Allah is only a legend and the Koran is forgotten. Marx, Lenin, chemistry, economics, mathematics, scientific agriculture, electricity, and hygiene are new realities to millions who once knew only the sleepy teachings of priestcraft” (33).

Such talk would likely get one branded an Orientalist or Islamophobe by Marxists writing in recent years. According to Houria Bouteldja and the indigènes of France, religion is not the opiate of the masses but rather an authentic expression of non-Western ways of life. Worldviews rooted in atheistic materialism are imports of the decadent, liberal, bourgeois West. Downtrodden peoples living along the periphery cannot be expected to live without the comforting illusions of religious ritual. Perhaps Hughes was simply unaware of radical cultural difference, irreducible Otherness, and similar French theoretical nonsense. Now, thank G-d, we know better than those naïve revolutionaries of the past.

But Hughes had a more immediate reason for associating faith and religiosity with oppression. Citing Mencken — i.e.,  “America’s lovable literary buffoon” — he notes that “Across the water, on the mainland, the god worshipers are legion. Mencken…calls the South ‘The Bible Belt’ because there are so many churches, preachers, and prayers there. Yet it is in this same Bible Belt that hundreds of Negroes are lynched, race riots are organized, peonage and chain gangs and forced labor of all forms are found, women are exploited in the cotton mills, and farces of justice like the Scottsboro trial are staged” (27).

Langston Hughes, women in yashmaks in Tashkent (Central Asia), as all were before the Soviet revolution. The majority are now unveiled

Little wonder, then, that Marx’s 1875 program “to liberate conscience from the witchery of religion” would appeal to someone like Hughes. He poetically recalls,

In industrial cities in the Northern Unites States, hundreds of thousands of black and white workers walk the streets hungry and unemployed in the shadows of skyscrapers… And in the churches, the bosses pray, and the ministers are one in denouncing communism — and calling on God — like the mullahs of Bukhara when the Emir ruled. I walk through the streets past crumbling walls of sun-dried brick, beneath empty towers and minarets beside palaces and mosques. I remember how, as a boy in far-away Kansas, I dreamed of seeing this fabulous city… And now here I am, traveling with a Soviet newspaper, seeing for myself all the dusty and wonderful horrors that monarchy and religion created in the dark past, which have now been vanquished by socialism. (28)

What impressed Hughes the most, however, was the liberation of women brought about by the Bolsheviks. And not just Russian ones, either, but partisans hailing from every Soviet republic. Following the Emir’s overthrow, he explains, came “an opening of doors to women and the death of Allah…Now the brass bed of the Emir still stands in the summer palace, but his wives are free from the harem, and the whole estate is shortly to become a rest-home for the workers of the sovkhozes. Peasants will sleep where they could not enter before, and women will stroll unveiled beneath the grape arbors where once they walked only in paranjas guarded by eunuchs” (25).

Though few like to admit it today, many women saw the hujum (or “assault,” as reactionary anti-communist clerics today like to call it), as a positive good and expansion of their rights. Liberal (“multicultural”) sensibilities are so fragile and easily upset. Writes Hughes: “I attended vivid and thought-provoking plays in Ashkabad about lifting the veil from women’s faces, the bandits of the hills, and other very modern subjects growing out of the triumph of Revolution” (40). Besides these more superficial reforms, loosening strictures on modesty in women’s clothing, education was finally made available to all. “In the old city of Tashkent, Halima Kasakova didn’t learn to read or write until she was forty,” Hughes recounts anecdotally. “She is a middle-aged woman now, but for only eight years of her life has she walked in the streets without a thick horse-hair veil hiding her face. In 1925, with the Revolution still young in her part of the world, she took off the veil, went to school — and now? Well, now she is an important figure in the management of the Women’s Club in the old part of the town, where for the first time in remembered history women sit on terraces open to the street and drink tea. Furthermore, she is a member of the city Soviet” (49).

O.p.s. student of the Uzbek-women-institute of Education Unveiled girl since Soviet revolution

Of course, none of this is to say that Hughes did not appreciate other aspects of Uzbek, Tajik, or Turkmeni culture. He loved the local dances and even joined famous musicians in performing traditional songs. Even here, though, he was excited by what he called “the smashing of old traditions”: “Dancers had all been men. At festivals and weddings the men danced, and the women only looked (if they were even allowed)…In the old days, dancing, like most of the other joys of life, belonged only to the males. Now since Tamara Khanum, with a bravery that is worth noting, women dance too” (42).

It’s worth a read, Hughes’ pamphlet. Universalism such as his is sorely lacking on the left today. The photo at the top of this post depicts Hughes with the German journalist Arthur Koestler, later famous for his contribution to the ex-Marxist testimonial The God that Failed. 1932 would have probably marked the highest point of his devotion to the communist cause. With them is an Uzbek man.

Langston Hughes, A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia (1932) 1

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