By Geo Ong
Langston Hughes, primarily known as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance, also happened to be a pretty legit traveller. No further evidence is required than his travelogue of the 1930s, I Wonder As I Wander. In a decade slammed by the Great Depression, chest-deep in Jim Crow, and anxious under the looming shadows of World War II, this poet from Cleveland travelled the world to witness and live it all, firsthand and from multiple sources. Here’s a quick rundown of Hughes’s life in the 1930s. (In the book, Hughes wasn’t explicit with years, but I trust that he presented his material in chronological order, so they are thus presented to you as such.)
- drove with a friend from Cleveland to Miami, and then hopped a boat to Cuba before moving on to Haiti.
- toured the South, reading his poetry and giving lectures to black universities. His tour would ultimately expand and take him west and then north all the way up to San Francisco.
- after agreeing to participate in an all-black movie production in Moscow, Russia, Hughes drove coast to coast from San Francisco to New York City, barely catching the boat to Russia.
- after spending a year in the Soviet Union (the film ultimately fell through, but Hughes managed to write many articles), which also included the more remote regions of what is now modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, Hughes managed to board the Trans-Siberian Railway, which he rode to China and Japan.
- after significant time in Russia as well as a well-publicised luncheon with Madame Sun Yat Sen, Japanese officials believed Hughes was a Communist spy and kicked him out of Japan.
- back in the states, he spent a year in Carmel, California, to focus on writing.
- after receiving news of his father’s passing, Hughes went to Mexico City, the home of his father and one of the many places Hughes called home as a child. He attended the funeral but, not surprisingly to Hughes, received nothing in his father’s will. Still, Hughes decided to spend a few months in Mexico City, rooming with a photographer by the name of Henri-Cartier Bresson.
- moved back to New York City to find that his play, Mulatto, was being produced on Broadway
- accepted the opportunity to go to Madrid to cover African Americans in the International Brigades fighting against General Franco and his fascist armies.
Hughes’s book could’ve just as effectively been titled I Learn As I Land, for that seemed to be the quest behind these seemingly spontaneous decisions.
I have discovered in life that there are ways of getting almost anywhere you want to go, if you really want to go. You might have to squeeze through a knothole, humble yourself, or drink muddy tea from consumptive bowls or eat camel sausage, pass for Mexican, or take that last chance, but—well, if you really want to get there, that’s the way it is. If you want to see the world, or eat steaks in fine restaurants with white tablecloths, write honest books, or get in to see your sweetheart, you do such things by taking a chance. Of course, a boom may fall and break your neck at any moment, your books may be barred from libraries, or the camel sausage may lead to a prescription of arsenic. It’s a chance you take.