On "Letter from Spain"


Cary Nelson

Langston Hughes spent half a year in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, visiting troops on the Republican side, talking with people in Madrid, and acquiring extensive wartime knowledge. His wartime poem "Letter from Spain," given to Edwin Rolfe for him to publish in Volunteer for Liberty, the English language magazine of the International Brigades, in November 1937, is a splendid example of the way he uses colloquial language to put the struggle between democracy and fascism in Spain in a broad context of international racism and imperialism.

Hughes's biographer Arnold Rampersad describes this as "a maudlin dialect poem in ballad-epistle form" and says it is typical of the sort of "proletarian doggerel" Hughes wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. Rampersad also reports, apparently echoing Hughes's account in I Wonder as I Wander, the second volume of his autobiography, that some of the American soldiers objected to Hughes's use of dialect, since most of the black volunteers were educated. Since the poem adopts the voice and persona of a black volunteer in the Lincoln Battalion, it is understandable that some Americans felt the use of dialect misrepresented their comrades, but it is equally easy to imagine that others among the Lincolns would have understood why Hughes put the poem in what is actually a rather mild form of dialect--not simply to appeal to common people, as Rampersad suggests, but to make a specific political point: that the common sense of oppressed people gives them an appropriate experiential basis for understanding international politics. For all their fabled ferocity, the Moors were partly there as canon fodder, expendable because they were black. The view from Alabama therefore had the potential to clarify fascism's racist character--to link Franco's use of Moorish troops with Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia, for example--and to identify imperialism as a form of international racism. The relative universality of working class interests, moreover, also made for a vantage point from which it was possible to understand why British industrialists and financiers supported Franco; a progressive Spain threatened not only one source of potential profit but also, by its example, many others. A fairly complex set of political relationships are thus condensed into a brief poem in ordinary language, and the ordinary language asserts more clearly than any other kind of language might that expertise in international politics need not be restricted to those in power and authority. Indeed, one of the notable things about the volunteers in Spain was the diversity of their class background. Political understanding is thus not an elite, moneyed, high cultural capacity; it is in some ways the clarity that comes when some of that obfuscation is swept away. The use of dialect in the poem makes possible the material instanciation of some of those insights. Thus when the speaker looks across to Africa, makes the appropriate connections between his Spanish experience and global racial and financial relationships, the moment of recognition makes it possible to envision the existing structures of power undone, to "seed foundations shakin'." "Seed," an improper usage quite proper to dialect, is actually a pun: it is a moment of sight and insight which is also the fertile seed of radical change. The proffered handshake is an offer of alliance politics, a simple gesture of solidarity dependent on nothing less than a different understanding of the world. Yet the difficulty of reaching such understanding, the power national cultures have to impede such knowledge, is apparent in the Moor's failure to recognize the speaker's offer.

These interrelationships are foregrounded and heightened in the republication of the poem in the January 23, 1938, issue of The Daily Worker. There three of Hughes's poems in the voice of the black volunteer Johnny, "Dear Folks at Home," "Love Letter From Spain," and "Dear Brother at Home," are printed as a dramatic double-page poster bordered with illustrations that blur the distinction between the Spanish peasant and the American worker. The sombrero-clad peasant plowing a field behind a horse in Spain is substantially interchangeable with an American sharecropper. The farmer taking a hoe to the land before his modest home could easily be either here or in Spain; indeed, the industrial strikers just below him carry signs in English. The Republican soldiers in the images clearly stand guard over their mutual interests. Grouped together this way, the poems also reinforce these connections. "Folks over here don't treat me / Like white bosses used to do," Hughes writes in the first poem; those who might are on the other side: "Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey— / And here we shoot 'em down."

By Cary Nelson. Copyright 1999 Cary Nelson


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