Monday, 3 October 2011

Out of Their Trees 2


Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

One of the leading black poets of the 20th century was Langston Hughes. There is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, but his writing and the people he was close to make it likely that he could have been. A lot of websites go further and list him as definitely gay. I’m 90% convinced he was which is why I’ve chosen him for my second family history post.

Though not quite a household name (unless you watch “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” in which one of the main characters in named after him) Langston Hughes holds an important part in the history of black literature in America. His writing career began in the 1920. For a short while he was personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson, the founder of US Black History Month. Langston became a well-known writer and social activist during the years of racial segregation and was proud of his heritage, a lot of which he researched himself. If he was alive today I’m sure he’d be at the forefront of celebrating Black History Month, though he didn’t even consider himself black! Researching his own ancestry he realised that his heritage was more complex than he realised.

Three of his grandparents were born as free black Americans, all of them children of freed slaves. Only one generation earlier he had an ancestor who owned slaves, and another who was a slave-trader. Another great-grandfather, James Patterson, was a rarity in the deep south before the American Civil War – a free Afro-American. He helped many young black slaves to buy their freedom, and made sure they had safe passage to the north. James’ wife was the daughter of a French fur-trader who married a Cherokee girl. Their daughter Mary inherited a lot of the genetic characteristics of the Cherokees and was to play an important part in the life of her grandson Langston Hughes.

Mary married a free Afro-American who, like herself, was a quarter Native American, Charles Langston. It is said that his mother Lucy was related to Pocahontas. Lucy was born a slave. At the beginning of the 1800s she was given to Virginia plantation owner Roger Quarles in lieu of a debt. Very soon Lucy gave birth to Roger’s daughter. Unusually, Roger freed Lucy and their daughter from slavery and they lived together for the rest of their lives, having three more children, including Charles who kept his mother’s surname. Charles was a pioneer abolitionist and political activist.

The Quarles family were one of the earliest and most important settlers in the Virginia colonies. Langston’s 3-times-great-grandfather, John Quarles, married Jane Mallory, a member of an even more important settler family whose ancestry goes back to King John of England and beyond. From this marriage many thousands of Americans descend, including Tom Hanks and Steve McQueen, and gay composer Virgil Thomson. And through the Mallorys Langston is related to the Prince of Wales (and both of his wives), Tom Cruise, Glenn Close, Cindy Crawford, Britney Spears, and “Dorothy” herself, Judy Garland.

Langston Hughes’ multi-cultural ancestry is not unique. The programme “Who Do You Think You Are?” has shown how it can be very close indeed. Next month I’ll turn my attention to someone who is considered quintessentially English and look at the diverse ancestry of Will Young.

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