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Chris De Santis ’89 Expanding the Legacy of Langston Hughes

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In Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, surrounded by the lifework of blues poet Langston Hughes, Chris De Santis eagerly pored over thousands of manuscript pages. The goal of his research? To uncover whether Hughes was a serious writer of nonfiction.

Langston Hughes was one of the most prominent figures to emerge from the 1920s artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. He wrote extensively about the African-American experience.

“Hughes has been widely known as a poet of the people,” says De Santis, an associate professor of African-American and American literature at Illinois State University. “I have been researching his nonfiction works to present a Hughes who is more complex and intellectual.”

In July 2000, the University of Missouri Press asked De Santis to edit Volumes 9 and 10 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes (November 2001), a compilation to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his birth—February 1, 2002. Volume 9,Essays on Art, Race, Politics, and World Affairs, covers all of Hughes’ nonfiction writings from the early 1920s to his death in 1967. Volume 10, Fight for Freedom and Other Writings on Civil Rights, included Hughes’ history of the NAACP and writings on the civil rights issues of his era.

“Hughes used the essay form as a vehicle through which to comment on the contemporary issues he found most pressing at various stages of his career,” says De Santis. “He generated some of his most powerful critiques of economic and racial exploitation and oppression through the genre of the essay.”

Despite the difficulties of tracking down copyrights and securing permissions to republish, De Santis found working on this project exhilarating. “Hughes’ writings on the blues, the Soviet revolution, and the Jim Crow laws illuminate him as a deep thinker engaged in world events.”

While at Lewis & Clark, De Santis took inspiration from John Callahan, Morgan S. Odell Professor of Humanities, who is widely recognized for his work in African-American literature, especially his editions of four posthumous volumes of Ralph Ellison’s work.

“Callahan had a way of challenging me intellectually,” De Santis recounts. “He’d have me revise my ideas over and over again in order to come up with something amazing.”

In producing these comprehensive volumes on Hughes’ prose, De Santis clearly has lived up to his teacher’s expectation.

 

—by Shannon Smith 

 

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