Preparing to interview Langston Hughes, following the advice of Terry Gross

Preparation is key
The Icebreaker: “Tell me about yourself,”
(Gross: the only icebreaker
you’ll ever need)

Expected responses:

  • Born into Jim Crow America
  • Times were hard
  • Reading was my "opiate" for coping
  • Raised by grandmother when father abandoned family
  • Always felt "otherness" / felt like outsider

 

Curiosity: The secret to being a good
conversationalist
(Sympathy, empathy, why?)
  • Q: A very popular piece of yours that appears in many college essay anthologies is "Salvation," which is actually a narrative excerpted from one of the early chapters of your bio. The Big Sea. In it, you describe a time in your life, when you were "going on thirteen" that you had a very adult insight into the nature of religion that seemed to change your life. Did you include that story because it was a "coming of age: experience (at almost 13), or was this bigger--a defining moment in your life perhaps?
  • Q: You broke with cultural tradition in your writing in many ways and were even criticized by your Harlem Renaissance contemporaries for trying to reach past your typical audience of African American readers, and instead trying to connect also to "mainstream America," white readers. What did you hope to accomplish by doing this?
  • Q: I see influences of your work and the themes and people you wrote about in the works of other writers, like Lorraine Hansberry, but far more importantly I see how your ideas and writing influenced great social change that began to happen when you became middle aged. Was that a goal of yours as an artist throughout the years?
Be funny: (if you can). If you canít be funny, being mentally organized, reasonably concise and energetic
  • Q: One of the most notable and famous characters in your essays and narratives was Jesse B. Semple, an "everyman" Black American who said things that were at once very funny, on the surface, yet very profound when we look for deeper meanings. What do you think were some of the funniest and at the same time most profound observations of the character you called "Simple" Semple?
  • If this is too personal, you don't have to answer, but, you never married, and there is speculation as to why you did not. You always felt that you were "the outsider" with regard to your religious beliefs, your political affiliations, and even from the philosophies of your Harlem Renaissance contemporaries. You worked hard to keep you private life private. Is that because your lifestyle choices, which would be legally and for the most part culturally acceptable now, were not acceptable during your life time?
Take control
  • [Gross: “Let me share an experience” is good for a question you’d rather not answer, and good for turning the conversation in the direction you want it to go.]
  • Pivot point: "Let me share an experience when, like you, I was looking for a religious connection, and didn't find it; when this happened, I was a little bit older, 20 rather than 13 . . ." (empathy, re: bullet 3)

How to dodge questions, and questions to ask

 

  • Establish: "I know that you have kept aspects of your personal life private, beyond what you have written about in your autobiographies, and I have some questions about your personal life that relate to the themes you wrote about, but if I ask you something that you don't want to talk about, please just say so."
  • Bucking the norms of your times, culture, and society in general:
  • Q: As an adolescent, you lost your faith in the incident you describe in the essay "Salvation" and wrote about your agnosticism at a time when belief was the norm and the expectation. How did that make you feel different from your peers?"
  • Q: You intended your work to be read by a wider audience than the culture of your times was expected to reach and you depicted the inequities of living in a racially divided and racially oppressed society. What was your hope in your attempts to do this?
  • Q: Like many other Americans exploring alternatives to the oppression and hypocricy of living in this "free society" in the 1920s and 30s you even found yourself intrigued by the egalitarian tenets of communism as it was developing in Europe at the time. Why did you accept the offer from the Soviet Union to go to Russia to make a film about racism in America?
  • Q: In bucking all these norms and expectations of your culture and times, the themes in your poems, plays, essays, memoirs, and song lyrics often reflect separation, alienation, and "otherness." Notably you never married in your lifetime, when that was also a social expectation, and that also marked you as different from the usual creative artists of the time. Was there a reason for that that you had not written much about? Was that another way in which you felt and thought differently from your contemporaries?
Body language
  • Hughes, famously, is a very expressive person. He wrote and even directed plays, so he is attuned to body language. Observe how he uses body language to reinforce his verbal expression, and respond in order to build on the energy of the conversation.
  • Look for signs of wariness when answering a question he is not comfortable to answer.
Closure
  • Q: Is there anything else you would like to say or that you would like me to tell my students about Langston Hughes?