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Reading Langston Hughes’s Wartime Reporting From the Spanish Civil War

Several years before the United States officially entered World War II, Black Americans were tracking the international spread of fascism.

In the City of Light, Hughes walked the cobblestone streets of Montmartre, the “little Harlem” of Paris. Nights were filled with jazz, drinks, and gossip; days were consumed with talk of the war in Spain. Hughes gathered with writers at the Second International Writers’ Congress to debate what would happen if the military revolt in Spain was successful. Black people were intimately familiar with fascism in America, he argued, and proceeded to describe Jim Crow segregation in schools, theaters, and concert halls; dozens of horrific lynchings in the prior decade; and innocent Black defendants sentenced to jail or death by all-white juries.

Hughes was not a bombastic speaker, but rather spoke in an even, assured tone. He could sometimes appear bored while reading his older poems for audiences, but when discussing contemporary events, his understated and direct speaking style conveyed passion and urgency. “Yes, we Negroes in America do not have to be told what Fascism is in action,” he said. “We know. Its theories of Nordic supremacy and economic suppression have long been realities to us.”

Hughes was building on a chorus of Black voices who recognized that the German Third Reich saw the American system of race law as a model and that Nazi ideology was not solely a foreign problem. “The racial policy of the Hitler movement is strikingly similar to that of the neo-Ku Klux Klanism of America,” sociologist and public intellectual Kelly Miller noted three years prior, in 1933. Two years later, a New York Amsterdam News editorial argued, “If the Swastika is an emblem of racial oppression, the Stars and Stripes are equally so.” Hughes received a rousing ovation in Paris for saying what many Black Americans were thinking at the time—that fascism was Jim Crow with a foreign accent.

After nearly a month in France, Hughes boarded a train from Paris to Barcelona with Cuban poet and journalist Nicolás Guillén. Crossing the border between France and Spain, the two men changed trains in the seaside town of Portbou. It was a quiet, sunny morning when they arrived. Children were swimming in the shimmering blue water of the Mediterranean. The view was idyllic.

As Hughes looked around, however, the idyll was disturbed. The walls of the small customhouse were pocked by machine-gun bullets. Nearby, several houses lay in ruin, destroyed by aerial bombs. Signs reading REFUGIO pointed to mountain caves where people hid during the frequent air raids.