In interviews and in his writing, Langston Hughes liked to describe himself as a poet first. But according to Arnold Rampersand, in his introduction to the newly collected "Short Stories of Langston Hughes," Hughes was also fond of calling himself "a literary sharecropper." Beginning in 1926 -- that long-ago time when writers could live off their fiction -- short stories were his cash crop.
But while Hughes often considered fiction writing a way of keeping himself alive, his stories -- unlike those of many professional writers at the time -- are never less than sharp and poetic. The mostly out-of-print stories in this volume, collected by editor Akiba Sullivan Harper, are an extraordinary testament to his talent as a prose writer. Published between 1919 and 1963, the stories move chronologically from a series based on Hughes' experience as a young seaman along the coast of West Africa to later stories set in a variety of major cities. Also included are three stories that Hughes wrote in high school which have until now been stored in archives.
Whether in Dakar or Reno or Manhattan, Hughes puts his predominantly black characters in settings rife with prejudice -- the black professor in white academia, the young black piano player with a white patron, a black acting troupe performing at white-only theaters. His tone is often somewhat instructional: "One of the great difficulties about being a member of a minority race is that so many kind-hearted, well-meaning bores gather around to help," he writes in "Who's Passing for Who?" As with his poetry, race and identity are Hughes' subjects -- whites passing for black and blacks passing for white, a prostitute claiming that she has a son and lives in Beverly Hills when she has nothing, a preacher who says he is Jesus.
This collection reflects Hughes' enormous gift as not only a fiction writer but an historian as well, a connection that is hardly accidental. As the narrator explains at the end of the first seafaring story, "Those things are almost forgotten now -- but the scar, and the memory. . . make me write this story."