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Reading Langston Hughes In Turkmenistan

Some fine storytelling in the "Literary Traveler." A Peace Corps volunteer hears a Turkmen boy reading a poem by the American writer Langston Hughes and wonders why.

The story of Langston Hughes's journey to Central Asia began with a telegram. In early 1932, the Soviet government, hoping to embarrass the United States, was trying to gather a group of African American actors to make a movie called Black and White, about racism in America. They wanted Hughes to sign on to the project as a screenwriter.

The 30-year-old Hughes was enthusiastic and quickly made his way to Moscow by ship, along with the actors the Soviets had engaged. "To the twenty-two of us from Harlem, it was partly a lark, a summer jaunt, plus a brief escape from the color lines back home," he wrote in his 1956 memoir, I Wonder as I Wander.

Things went badly from the start. The script, written by a Russian who'd never visited the United States, was "a pathetic hodgepodge of good intentions and faulty facts . . . improbable to the point of ludicrousness," Hughes recalled. He pointed this out to his Soviet bosses and they spent months pondering what to do next, leaving the Americans idle - first in Moscow and then on the Black Sea coast, where they created a scene one day by playing leapfrog naked on the beach. In the end, the Soviets scrapped the project and released the Americans to return home or stay and tour the USSR, as they pleased.

Read the full piece by Sam Tranum here.

-- Luke Allnutt

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Written by RFE/RL editors and correspondents, Transmission serves up news, comment, and the odd silly dictator story. While our primary concern is with foreign policy, Transmission is also a place for the ideas -- some serious, some irreverent -- that bubble up from our bureaus. The name recognizes RFE/RL's role as a surrogate broadcaster to places without free media. You can write us at

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