Boundaries Transgressed: Modernism and miscegenation in Langston Hughes’s “Red-Headed Baby”

Boundaries Transgressed: Modernism and miscegenation in Langston Hughes’s “Red-Headed Baby”

Atlantic Studies
Volume 3, Issue 1 (April 2006)
pages 97 – 110
DOI: 10.1080/14788810500525499

Isabel Soto

This essay is an expanded and revised version of a paper read at the 8th International Conference On the Short Story in English, organized by the Instituto Universitario de Investigación en Enstudios Norteamericanos, Alcalá de Henares (Spain), 28–31 October 2004.

This essay argues that while Langston Hughes‘s short story “Red-Headed Baby” (from The Ways of White Folks) may initially seem to depart from the Hughes repertoire (through its dizzying modernist style, for one), it ultimately endorses the author’s signature concerns of race, genre transgression and imaginative appropriation of alterity. I also seek to historicize Hughes’s text, inscribing it within a modernist practice, studies of which have traditionally promoted the Euro-American paradigm of a dehistoricized “modernist construction of authorship through displacement” (Cora Kaplan). Few writers of the first third of the twentieth century have undertaken travel—figurative and literal—as intensely as Hughes has. His work is anchored in representations of displacement and “Red-Headed Baby” is no exception, with its miscegenation motif and sailor protagonist. Hence my reading of Hughes’s short story will also draw on modes of inquiry that promote displacement as central to an understanding of cultural practice. I draw substantially on Paul Gilroy‘s black Atlantic model and formulations of diaspora—not least because his influential work barely mentions Hughes, that most diasporic of modernist writers. I will argue that travel was aesthetically enabling for Hughes, enhancing what elsewhere I have termed his poetics of reciprocity or mutuality. Finally, Duboisian double consciousness also contributes to my discussion, which proposes a dialogic relationship between The Souls of Black Folks and The Ways of White Folks.

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