The Conditions of Langston Hughes in Literary Study and Literary Study in the Academy (MLA 2023)

deadline for submissions: 
March 27, 2022
full name / name of organization: 
Langston Hughes Society

In 1931, Langston Hughes embarked on a tour of the southern United States, reading his poetry mostly at HBCUs in the age of Jim Crow. His goal was two-fold: he was both answering Mary McLeod Bethune’s suggestion that “people need poetry” and developing a formula for “making poetry pay.” As the Great Depression dragged on and the Scottsboro case lay heavy on his mind, Hughes understood the importance of art and the artist in providing perspective and spiritual strength to the community, but he also labored under hostile conditions that complicated every aspect of his journey. Although he characteristically infuses his descriptions with humor, readers cannot avoid the physical danger Hughes faced as he sought a space in which he and his work could flourish.


Nearly a century later, the value of poetry – and indeed literary studies and the humanities in general – is questioned inside and outside the academy. The precariousness that literary scholars face is certainly not the same as Hughes faced, but the profession finds itself defending its existence from university administrators, politicians, and pundits. The MLA 2023 Presidential Theme “Working Conditions” asks us to consider the academic workplace and specifically the place of literary research in understanding the present and shaping the future of our working conditions. In the spirit of Langston Hughes, how might we reflect on the importance of our work and take our work to the people?


The Langston Hughes Society invites papers that consider the question of “working conditions” in a broad context that addresses any of these three areas:

  • The ways in which Langston Hughes’ work contributes to the transformation of present academic working conditions.
  • The challenges that Hughes and his contemporaries faced in using their art to address their own working conditions.
  • The struggles faced and overcome by previous generations of academics to bring the work of Hughes and his contemporaries into the academy.


Please submit proposals of no more than 300 words to Christopher Allen Varlack ( and Richard Hancuff ( no later than March 27, 2022. Note that presenters must be members of the Langston Hughes Society by the time of the conference in order to present. Please indicate any AV equipment needs in your e-mail. For more information on the Langston Hughes Society, please visit our website at