Reflecting on his career, the vaudeville comedian Bert Williams attributed his success to his decision to perform in blackface. “A great protection,” he said, that “gave me a great place to hide.” A generation later, Langston Hughes became Williams’s literary equivalent: a black artist who found his voice in the appropriation of the black underclass. So successful was he that a half-century after his death, Hughes remains what he energetically endeavored to become: the beloved bard of black America. Like his poetic idol Walt Whitman, Hughes strove to be (in Alfred Kazin’s characterization of the Good Gray Poet) “the poet of the people and to act the poet in public.”

Incubated in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes...


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