What benefits do Black folk get by endorsing or participating in the white man’s war? Revisiting an anti-war statement by Langston Hughes.
The legendary African-American poet and novelist Langston Hughes was a radical. Despite oftentimes bizarre attempts to lock him into a Black bourgeois liberal-imperialist project, Hughes sided with the Black sufferers, the global working classes, and the marginalized and dispossessed masses of any and every race. A socialist and an internationalist, Hughes wrote odes to Lenin, to the Russian Revolution, and to the great Haitian marxist Jacques Roumain. He wrote on the frame-up of the Scottsboro Boys and penned chants for May Day. Hughes’s verse advocated for the Republican struggle in the Spanish Civil War and celebrated anti-fascist resistance across Asia and Europe. He wrote against class hierarchy in the United States and the imperialist expansion of Wall Street into the Caribbean. And, in “Negroes Speaks of War,” Hughes wrote against war and militarism and provided us with a remarkable Black call for peace.
A short piece that is half essay, half poetic meditation, Hughes’ “Negroes Speaks of War” was published in November, 1933. It appeared in the premier issue of Fight Against War and Fascism, the monthly journal of the American League Against War and Fascism, a coalition of radicals organized “as a weapon in the struggle against the ruling class and their efforts to involve the world in another slaughter match.” It was later reproduced in August, 1934 in The Negro Worker, the journal of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers. The breezy, whimsical tone of “Negroes Speak of War” contrasts starkly with casual stunning, savage imagery of white violence and imperial conflict. Its message? In short, Hughes asks his readers: what benefits do Black folk get by endorsing or participating in the white man’s war? It is a message as relevant now as it was in 1933, and a question that has the same answer now as in 1933: that is, none.
We reproduce Langston Hughes’s “Negroes Speak of War” below. It is the Black Agenda Review’s final piece for 2022. Thanks for reading. We’ll see you in the new year. Peace.
Negroes Speak of War
When the time comes for the next war, I’m asking you, remember the last war. I’m asking you, what you fought for, and what you would be fighting for again? I’m asking you, how many of the lies you were told, do you still believe? Does any Negro believe, for instance, that the world was actually saved for Democracy? Does any Negro believe, any more, in closing ranks with the war makers? Maybe a few Negro soldiers believed Dr. Moton when he came over to France talking about, “Be nice and fight for the nice white folks. Be meek and shoot some Germans.” But do any Negroes believe him now, with lynched black workers hanging on trees all around Tuskegee? I’m asking you?
And after the Chicago riots and the Washington riots and the East St. Louis riots, and more recently the Bonus March, is it some foreign army needs to be fought?
And listen, I’m asking you, with all the war ships and marines and officers and Secretary of the Navy going to Cuba, can’t they send even one sergeant after Sheriff Shamblin in Alabama?
And with all the money they got to buy bombing planes, why in the hell can’t they pay the teachers for my kids to go to school?
And even if I was studying about fighting (which I ain’t) why couldn’t I do a little killing in the navy without wrassling with pots and pans, or join the marines (the lily white marines) and see the world, or go in the air force where you never admitted Negroes yet? I’d like to be above the battle too. Or do you think you gonna use me for stevedoring again?
And speaking of France, our once beloved ally, where Negroes can still eat in the restaurants in spite of Woodrow Wilson—don’t let that fool you. Somebody ought to put the French black Africans wise to the fact that they ought to treat them well in Paris when they are drilling them by the hundreds of thousands to stop bullets with their breasts and bombs with their heads and fill the frontline trenches for dear old France (that only a handful of them have ever seen) in the next war. Or have they got a French Dr. Moton to lie to black Africans, too, I’m asking you?
And when the next war comes, I want to know whose war and why. For instance, if it’s the Japanese you’re speaking of—there’s plenty of perils for me right here at home that needs attending to: what about them labor unions that won’t admit Negroes? And what about all them factories where I can’t work, even if there was work? And what about the schools I can’t go to, and the states I can’t vote in, and the juries I can’t sit on?
And what about all them sheriffs that can never find out who did the lynching? And what about something to eat without putting on a uniform and going out and killing folks I never saw to get it? And what about some work? And what about them “separate colored” codes in the NRA? And what about a voice in whose running this country and why—before I even think about crossing the water and fighting again?
Who said I want to go to war? If I do, it ain’t the same war the President wants to go to.
No, sir. I been hanging on a rope in Alabama too long.