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Although critics have tended to regard Hughes’s 1930s short fiction as less politically engaged than his poetry and drama of the same period, Hughes’s Great Depression–period short stories in fact engage in a form of literary radical activism. The stories expose racism as a form of nationalism that articulates interwar US imperialism and domestic fascism. With their understated and ironic tone, Hughes’s short stories are as stylistically effective as any of the most admired Harlem Renaissance–period short stories and as compelling as Black short fiction after the renaissance. Hughes’s short fiction is aesthetically forceful if one accepts the notion that Black fiction of the Great Depression through the civil rights period does not have to emulate modernist, canonical, universalist fiction, art that is allegedly free of ideological content. This chapter examines such stories as “Cora Unashamed” and “The Blues I’m Playing” for both their aesthetic and political distinction.
Hughes is widely regarded as the Harlem Renaissance’s most eminent Black queer literary figure, yet mapping this repute poses a weighty challenge. Rather than add yet another layer to the debate over Hughes’s sexual identity, this chapter surveys the queer content in his published writings with a view toward sketching the author’s role as a Black queer artist. This chapter takes the position that a foremost responsibility of the contemporary reader is to understand that to read Hughes’s work as queer art through a twenty-first-century sensibility would limit what Hughes’s queer literary art achieves. As with questions about his engagement with leftism, his position on Black uplift, and his temperament regarding the Harlem Renaissance itself, Hughes’s literary art demands to be read in its dense historical, cultural contexts, and in accordance with the author’s passionately private aesthetic.