During the 1950s and early 1960s, while the US civil rights movement was recording some measure of success the apartheid government in South Africa was becoming more vicious, persecuting, censoring and banning its opponents. To secure their safety, many activists began streaming out of the country. Bloke Modisane, the South African journalist, writer, actor and broadcaster, was among them, exiled in London after having unceremoniously left his ancestral land in 1959. Modisane was part of the illustrious generation of Drum magazine journalists, who constantly exposed the atrocities of the apartheid government through reportage and investigative journalism in the 1950s. As one of the prominent journalists who documented the living conditions of Black people, he was a thorn in the side of the apartheid regime. Modisane was harassed, persecuted and so chose to wage his fight against apartheid from foreign lands.
Langston Hughes, the American poet, writer and civil rights activist, had been trying to put together an anthology of works by African writers since 1954. During this period, Hughes worked very closely with the Drum scribes, even serving as one of the judges for the magazine’s short story competition. Ultimately in 1960, Hughes brought together hordes of South African writers and published them alongside other prominent African writers in the anthology titled An African Treasury, a project he described as “a very personal treasury.” One of Modisane’s stories, “Why I Ran Away,” was to be published in it. In this story, he wrote, “White is right, and to be Black is to be despised, dehumanized, classed among the beasts, hounded and persecuted, discriminated against, segregated and oppressed by government and by man’s greed.”
The imminent publication of the anthology was the entry point through which Modisane and Hughes started a correspondence. The initial letters were courteous, measured and almost innocuous. But this duo would go on to exchange well over 50 letters between 1960 and 1967. Their close relationship followed in the footsteps of their predecessors like W.E.B DuBois, who—in 1894 at Wilberforce University—had taught Charlotte Maxeke, the first Black South African woman to get a degree. DuBois also had an epistolary relationship with Sol T. Plaatje, the first Secretary General of the ruling African National Congress, thus establishing strong transnational ties cast on the foundation of mutual struggles.
The Modisane and Hughes connection reinforced these ties. At the beginning of their exchange, Modisane was despondent, displaced with no stable income and hoping to get proceeds from the publication of the story. In a letter dated October 20, 1960, he described his situation thus:
“I believe the definition for a struggling artist is: a man, creative artist by repute, who lives on the advance of the next work. I drift from job to job, working my guts out by day and writing by night. I’m 36 and like ‘Simple’ I haven’t worked my way through to the first alimony, but I’m told there’s hope yet, except that ‘hope’ and I have been buddies for a long, long time… But I keep hoping (there’s that word again) that maybe some day I’ll get published in a glossy and make me enough [money] to live on while I write my first book; you know, the great South African novel, will out-sell the Bible.”
It would not take long before their connection developed into an intimate bromance punctuated with regular letters, exchange of gifts, occasional visits and partying. The frequency of the letters tells of a burgeoning camaraderie and organically fast-growing friendship. The two struck one of the most iconic yet underrated transatlantic friendships of the 1960s. Of all the prominent personalities that Hughes exchanged letters with across the world, his communication with Modisane stands out as the most intimate and sensuous correspondence rendered in lyrical prose.
He proposed to Modisane that “maybe we can have luncheon or dinner together or something.” Indeed, they met and, from this point, their relationship was propelled to another level. They transitioned from Modisane addressing his counterpart as “Mr Hughes” to “Langston,” then “Lang,” and ultimately, “My American Bantu.” Hughes, on the other hand, moved from initially addressing Modisane as “Mr Modisane” to “Bloke,” then “Blokie,” and ultimately “My Favourite Bantu.” In that, the dialogue was no longer limited to publishing and literature, but encapsulated the whole gamut of life, particularly issues pertaining to daily struggles, falling in love and being Black in an oppressive state. Following their first encounter in person, Hughes was still upbeat about their meeting, as he wrote in December 1960: “I am still remembering that delightful little party at your place, and I enjoyed meeting Todd, Jimmy, Sonny, and the others very much. It was fun….I’m sending you my blues record today. And when the African one is ready, it will be along, too.”
As their relationship grew, they expanded their circle of friends, introducing each other’s acquaintances. It was through his friendship with Modisane that Hughes’ home at number 20 East 127th Street, in Harlem, became a point of convergence for South African exiles, including Lewis Nkosi, Todd Matshikiza and Miriam Makeba, who feature prominently in their exchanges. Makeba had just shot to fame following the release of the 1959 Lionel Rogosin film, Come Back Africa, where her musical talent was displayed and for which Modisane and Nkosi had writing credits. In 1959, while promoting the film in England, Makeba met Harry Belafonte, with whom she would collaborate and become a world musical icon.
In addition to his lifelong quest to promote black pride, Hughes had embarked on a deliberate mission of rediscovery—reconnecting with the African continent through letters, cultural exchange and intellectual engagement. As such, Modisane shared elements of African cultural outlook, including sharing South African music records, teaching him some Zulu words and gifting him with African cultural garments: In one letter, dated April 5, 1961, Hughes wrote:
“I was just talking to Maya Angelo (sic) on the phone, and she said she enjoyed meeting you SO much in London. And so I thought I would write and tell you what she said… Tell Todd I’m DE-LIGHTED to hear of the success of KING KONG, and to read in the New York papers that it will eventually come here. Why don’t you come, too? Can’t you get a part in it? I have not seen a Bantu since I left London!!!!!!!”
Bloke Modisane was integral in reinforcing Hughes’ embeddedness with African cultures and his expansive sense of humanity. By exchanging information about their own lives, they were sharing tenets of Blackness. Coming from the background of being a radical young man who broke away from the ANC in favor of the more radical and Africanist Pan-African Congress (PAC), Modisane felt at ease to express his Black pride to Hughes.
There were moments when Modisane was despondent, on the verge of a breakdown, and when such moments happened, it seemed like the only person who could understand him was Hughes. In one letter, he expressed his feelings thus: “Man, it gets awful lonely here, like screaming, screaming down a dream alley, screaming of blues like none can hear. But I know you can hear me clear and loud, like it’s for you I scream.” There were other moments when what he needed was not just emotional support, but monetary as well. In a letter dated May 10, 1962, he even contemplated going back to apartheid South Africa where he was “at least…alive.” In addition to the usual sympathies, Hughes immediately sent $50 via Western Union on May 15, 1962. Later the same year, on November 21, 1962, Modisane expressed similar sentiments: “I’ve seldom been hungrier in my life, not even in South Africa. I was kicked out of my flat with no money to move into another and I’ve since been living in the good offices of a friend who’s allowed me to sleep in his living room.”
Following these episodes, Hughes looked for something more sustainable through which Modisane could earn significant income. He arranged a series of public lectures for Modisane across multiple states in the US, where he conscientized American audiences about the situation in South Africa. In this correspondence dated October 17, 1962, he wrote: “I have been talking with the United Negro College Fund here, and with AMSAC—American Society of African Culture—about the possibility of bringing you to the U.S.A. for lectures.”
At that time, there was a lot of interest in South African culture and politics. It was after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the formation uMkhonto weSizwe as the ANC military wing in 1961, and following the arrest of political leaders— including Nelson Mandela—in August 1962. Hughes secured the lectures through the assistance of the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC). Hughes invited Modisane to stay in his place. In a letter dated February 16, 1963, Modisane responded: “Thanks for the invite to be your guest, I would much rather prefer that to a hotel; that is, if you’re sure it’s okay, you know I’m a bit wild—the jungle and everything, you know? I still carry traces of the flora.”
In March 1963, Modisane was the guest speaker at the AMSAC conference authors’ reception and went on to speak at more than 20 institutions across the US, where, among other things, he created awareness about identity politics, African music and rhythms and the political conditions in South Africa. This was part of the broader campaign to build international solidarity against apartheid. Part of his opening speech at the AMSAC reception stated: “For the world outside is responsible for the furtherance and continuance of the system. I indict the world. Every investment, every gold bar bought from South Africa helps to pay for the machinery of apartheid.”
Modisane’s series of public lectures across the various states in the US helped the broader American intelligentsia to better comprehend the political dynamics and complexities of apartheid South Africa. He met with the presidents of the various colleges and had engagements with politically active students who were aligned with the civil rights ideals. Although he initially targeted predominantly Black colleges like Virginia Union University and Livingston College, he received invites from white colleges like Michigan State University and ended up delivering over 20 public lectures. Shortly after Modisane’s visit, Miriam Makeba addressed the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid as part of international mobilization against apartheid and, in 1966, the UN took up a resolution to declare apartheid as a crime against humanity.
What began as a simple work relationship between two scribes grew into an intimate friendship and epitomized the role of cultural activists and public intellectuals in the fight against apartheid. Following the release of his book, Blame Me on History, in 1963, Modisane’s stature as a writer and actor flourished and the frequency of his epistolary exchange declined, but the missives were significantly more expansive. One of the last letters was from Hughes dated January 24, 1967, in which he informed his friend that, “Right now I’ve got the flu. Feel like the end of nowhere.” It seems like Hughes never fully recovered after this ailment. He died on May 22, 1967.
The relationship between Hughes and Modisane stands out as an iconic bromance that, through the art of letter writing, minimized the distance between England and the US, and metaphorically between apartheid South Africa and the civil rights movement in the United States.
Dr. Siphiwo Mahala is a literary historian and author. He is the founder and editor of the Imbiza Journal for African Writing and Senior Lecturer at the University of Johannesburg. His latest play, Bloke and His American Bantu, reimagines the friendship between Bloke Modisane and Langston Hughes.