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From Turkmenistan to America: How I Found Langston Hughes

by Sam Tranum

The boy’s hands shook slightly as he stood in front of the blackboard holding a sheet of white paper. A bead of sweat ran down his left temple. A fly buzzed around his head. He waved it away, took a deep breath, planted his feet wide on the worn wood-plank floor, and began to speak.

It was summer in Turkmenistan and the temperature was well over 100 degrees. A breeze blew desert dust into the room through the classroom’s open windows. The two dozen or so men and women seated at the room’s child-sized desks picked at plates of cookies and grapes as they listened to the boy recite a poem.

“Vaht khappens to a dream deferred?” he began with a thick Russian accent. “Does it dry up like a raisin in zee sun?”

I was stunned. In a battered old schoolhouse in a tiny industrial city in a Muslim former Soviet republic on Iran’s northern border in Central Asia, a skinny 15-year-old was demonstrating his English skills by reciting a Langston Hughes poem.

Contemporary American pop culture spreads far and fast these days. So I hadn’t been surprised to learn that even in an isolated, totalitarian country like Turkmenistan, 50 Cent’s rhymes had snuck into the hearts of thousands of young people via satellite television. But it was a mystery to me how the work of a decades-dead African American writer – one who is growing more obscure in the US with each passing year – had slipped into its public schools.

That all happened back in August of 2004, during a welcome ceremony I’d attended just a few days after I’d arrived in Turkmenistan to spend two years teaching health classes for the Peace Corps. A lot happened during my time there, but the mystery of that boy’s poem was one of the things that stuck with me until the end, a question to be answered, a mosquito bite on my brain begging to be itched.

After returning to the US and spending a few hours in a University of Chicago library, I soon learned the basics of the story: Hughes, a Communist sympathizer, had been to Central Asia 72 years before me. Apparently he’d made a lasting impression and become a favorite in the Soviet system, which had not yet faded from Turkmenistan when I arrived.

But that was only part of the story that I discovered. My research led me not only to Hughes’s memoir, but to Arthur Koestler’s, too and to my own family history.

The Movie

The story of Langston Hughes’s journey to Central Asia began with a telegram. In early 1932, the Soviet government, hoping to embarrass the United States, was trying to gather a group of African American actors to make a movie called Black and White, about racism in America. They wanted Hughes to sign on to the project as a screenwriter.

The 30-year-old Hughes was enthusiastic and quickly made his way to Moscow by ship, along with the actors the Soviets had engaged. “To the twenty-two of us from Harlem, it was partly a lark, a summer jaunt, plus a brief escape from the color lines back home,” he wrote in his 1956 memoir, I Wonder as I Wander.

Things went badly from the start. The script, written by a Russian who’d never visited the United States, was “a pathetic hodgepodge of good intentions and faulty facts . . . improbable to the point of ludicrousness,” Hughes recalled. He pointed this out to his Soviet bosses and they spent months pondering what to do next, leaving the Americans idle – first in Moscow and then on the Black Sea coast, where they created a scene one day by playing leapfrog naked on the beach. In the end, the Soviets scrapped the project and released the Americans to return home or stay and tour the USSR, as they pleased.

Hughes opted to stay and, with about a dozen of his colleagues, lobbied the government for permission to tour Turkmenistan, which they wanted to visit because they’d heard that was the place in the USSR “where the majority of the colored citizens lived.” The least developed part of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan was closed to foreigners at the time, but Hughes and his friends somehow got the necessary travel papers and set off by train.

Though rough, Hughes judged that the train trip south was not “nearly so unpleasant as many I had made on Jim Crow trains at home, where I could not eat in the diner and was segregated in a single coach.” He and the rest of the movie crew soon made friends with their fellow travelers who “inquired about conditions in ‘starving America,’ where, they had heard, the Depression had reduced everyone to skin and bones,” Hughes recalled. This was ironic, given the situation in the USSR at the time.

As Hughes and his traveling companions were sharing Louis Armstrong records and balalaika tunes on the train, they were rattling south into a Central Asia suffering through wrenching changes and famine. Tsarist Russia had invaded the region bit by bit in the mid- and late-1800s, finding a few splendid ancient cities, some farmers, and vast reaches of steppe inhabited by nomadic herders who still lived in felt yurts and lived much as their ancestors had many centuries earlier.

When the Bolsheviks seized control of the Russian Empire in 1917, they inherited Central Asia as part of the package and incorporated it into their plans for building a worker’s paradise. Lenin launched programs to settle the nomads; force them onto massive, state-owned “collective” farms; “purge” the richest and most troublesome among them; break their attachment to Islam; remove the veils from the faces of the women among them; teach them to read and write; and, in practically all other ways, completely restructure Central Asian society.

Among the results of this massive disruption of old social, political, economic, and agricultural patterns, was a famine. As Hughes toured the country writing generally positive articles contrasting the lot of “negros” in the American south and “negros” in the Soviet south, people were starving to death in the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Central Asia, and other parts of the USSR. And not just a few: roughly a million people starved to death in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Kazakhstan alone.

The Soviet government did its best to hide the existence and extent of the famine, so Hughes could not have known how bad it was. But he was clearly aware that people were starving. One longtime Moscow resident, a retired African American actress, told him: “[D]own in Kharkov [in the Ukraine], people’s so hungry they are slicing hams off each other’s butts and eating them.” He saw signs of the famine for himself, too, remarking after finding empty shelves in food stores in Uzbekistan that, “The famine of the Ukraine and Volga regions seemed to have penetrated into Asia.” But this did little to dampen his enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment.

A Traveling Companion

By the time Hughes’s train reached Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital, his colleagues had tired of roughing it in Central Asia and were ready to return to the relative comfort of European Russia. Hughes decided to stay behind. So he was alone in a room in an Ashgabat guesthouse one October evening, playing jazz records on his portable phonograph (he didn’t exactly travel light), when someone knocked at his door. He yelled for the visitor to enter.

“The door opened and an intense-looking white man, in European clothing, with a sharp face and rather oily hair stepped in,” Hughes recalled. He introduced himself as Arthur Koestler. Although he would later become world famous for his anti-communist novel Darkness Before Noon, Koestler was at the time an obscure journeyman newspaper writer and a member of the Communist Party. Hughes had never heard of him but, glad to find someone who spoke English, he invited him in to listen to some records anyway.

Koestler knew exactly who Hughes was; he’d read and admired his work while in Berlin, he recalled in his memoir, The Invisible Writing. So when he’d followed the sounds of Sophie Tucker’s My Yiddishe Mommadown the guesthouse hallway, he’d been shocked to open a door and find Hughes behind it. “It was difficult not to say ‘Dr. Livingstone, I presume,'” he recalled.

The two writers hit it off. Hughes was amused by Koestler’s never-ending annoyance with the unsanitary Central Asian custom of sharing bowls of tea and impressed by the dour Hungarian’s work ethic. He decided that Koestler was like many writers he had known, always finding something wrong with the world around him, “unhappy when not unhappy, sad when not expounding on their sadness.” But he liked him for this: ” . . . I have always been drawn to such personalities because I often feel very sad inside myself, too, though not inclined to show it.”

Koestler, who was three years younger than Hughes, seemed to have enjoyed the American’s relatively sunnier disposition and political naivete. He labeled him an “innocent abroad,” ” very likeable and easy to get on with, but at the same time, one felt an impenetrable, elusive remoteness, which warded off all undue familiarity.”

The two saw and heard many of the same things. They traveled together and Koestler often translated conversations from Russian into English for Hughes, whose Russian was rudimentary. Koestler also shared his notes with Hughes, who was lazy about keeping a record of what he’d seen and heard. Despite working from the same sources, though, in their memoirs, the two men present very different portraits of Central Asia.

Though Koestler was a Party member and Hughes was not, the Hungarian’s memoir is more critical of the Soviet experiment. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that he wrote it in 1954, long after he’d already turned against communism and 14 years after Darkness at Noon was published. At the time that Hughes wrote I Wonder as I Wander, he had not made the same kind of angry turn against communism.

However, the differences in their views of Central Asia can also be explained in part by race. Hughes repeatedly contrasts Jim Crow America and the (officially) racially egalitarian Soviet Union. It seems he was willing to forgive the Soviets a lot because of what they had done for the “negros” of Central Asia and the example this set for the rest of the world – not least the US. In contrast, Koestler rarely mentioned race in his memoir.

To the white writer, race was not really an issue; to the black writer, it was the central issue. “To Koestler, Turkmenistan was simply a primitive land moving into twentieth-century civilization. To me it was a colored land moving into orbits hitherto reserved for whites,” Hughes explained.

Explorations

The first thing Hughes and Koestler checked out in Ashgabat was a show trial. A man named Atta Kurdov, former head of the city government, was on trial for crimes against the state. Hughes was quickly bored by the affair. But Koestler was fascinated and disturbed and couldn’t tear himself away until the court closed at the end of the day. “I did not doubt that Attakurdov [sic] and his people were bad, guilty men; but the eerie unreality pervading the courtroom made me at the same time feel that they were being used as scapegoats,” he wrote.

Hughes suggests that the Atta Kurdov trial in Ashgabat planted a seed of doubt about Soviet communism in Koestler’s mind: “He seemed very much upset when he came back to the guesthouse. I guess that was the beginning of Darkness at Noon.” Hughes took the trial much less seriously, needling the earnest Koestler about it: “Atta Kurdov looks guilty to me, of what I don’t know, but he just looks like a rogue . . .  when I saw that it upset him, I repeated that night just for fun, ‘Well, anyhow, Atta Kurdov does look like a rascal.’ Koestler went to his room and I didn’t see him any more until the next day.”

From Ashgabat, the two writers traveled east and visited a collective cotton farm, where they had their photograph taken, picking cotton together. The Russians had invaded Central Asia in part so they would have more sunny southern lands in which to plant cotton; by the late-1800s, the virtual halt in American cotton exports resulting from the Civil War had driven up cotton prices around the world. The Russians colonized Central Asia, imported American cotton seeds, and planted it on huge swaths of newly irrigated land. By the time Hughes arrived, they’d also brought in Americans to help with the process.

On a cotton farm 40 miles outside Tashkent, Uzbekistan, Hughes spent Christmas with about “a dozen American Negroes . . . most of whom were from the South. Some were agricultural chemists, graduates of Tuskeegee or Hampton, others were from Northern colleges, and some were just plain cotton farmers from Dixie, whose job it was in Soviet Asia to help introduce American methods of cultivating cotton.” Although life on the farm was “a great change for the better for the Uzbeks,” it was rougher than the Americans were used to and they were homesick. Still, they managed to enjoy themselves that day.

Hughes and Koestler’s experiences in Central Asia in 1932, sound a lot like mine, so many years later. I followed the show trials broadcast on state television by Turkmenistan’s president-for-life, Saparmurat Niyazov. I lived on a former Soviet collective cotton farm. Like Koestler, I squirmed at first when faced with local standards of hygiene. Like both of the writers, I consumed endless amounts of mutton pilaf, round flatbread, and green tea with amiable and generous hosts. The Soviet Union had grown, flourished, and fallen in the 72 years separating our visits, but not much had really changed.

Dedicated

I left Turkmenistan in the summer of 2006 and began a Master’s program at the University of Chicago, where I spent my free time in the libraries, trying to answer the questions about Central Asia that I’d gathered during my Peace Corps service. One winter day, as I sat with my feet on my desk watching the snow fall in the alley outside my window, I was idly examining a copy of Hughes’s I Wonder as I Wander, which I’d found in the library during my search for a solution to the mystery of the boy reading A Raisin in the Sun.

I wasn’t looking for anything in particular; I’d already discovered what I’d wanted to know. I just love books. So I paged through, feeling the texture of the cover and the brittleness of the pages. Then I flipped to the front and started from the beginning, examining the title page and then moving on. I stopped short when I came to the dedication: To Arthur and Marion Spingarn.

Spingarn is my grandmother’s maiden name and seeing it there shook something loose from the back of my brain. I remembered my grandmother telling me that her mother used to trade poetry with Langston Hughes. I’d never taken the story seriously; old people tell lots of stories and not all of them should be believed.

But now I was curious. So I emailed my father and asked him who Arthur and Marion Spingarn were. My great uncle and aunt, was the answer. “On hot summer afternoons, Aunt Marion would serve me cold root beer and Uncle Arthur would allow me to actually hold the enormous .45 revolver he carried as an officer in World War I”, he wrote.

The Spingarns, I learned, were a wealthy Jewish family based in New York, and were deeply involved in the civil rights movement. My great grandfather, Joel Spingarn, helped found the NAACP and both he and his brother Arthur served as president of the civil rights organization in its early years. They met Hughes when he visited their summer home in Amenia for tea, at the invitation of my great grandmother, Amy Spingarn, according to Faith Berry’s 1992 book Langston Hughes Before and Beyond Harlem.

Hughes never got along very well with Joel Spingarn, whom he found “aloof and cold,” Berry wrote. But after meeting his wife and her brother-in-law, “emotional ties were formed between Hughes and the Spingarn family that lasted for the rest of their lives.”

Arthur was Hughes’s “pro bono attorney and personal friend for more than forty years.” Amy traded encouraging letters with him and acted as his “secret benefactress,” paying for him to attend Lincoln University. In I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes praised the hospitality of a man he met in Uzbekistan by saying that he was “in his way as amiable and as thoughtful a host as had been . . . Amy Spingarn.”

And so, after all my searching, it turned out that if I’d wanted to solve the mystery of why that Turkmen boy had recited A Raisin in the Sun for me, I should have just asked my grandmother. She surely knew all about Hughes’s adventures in Central Asia and perhaps even about his travels with Koestler.

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From Turkmenistan to America: How I Found Langston Hughes