Langston Hughes's 1953 executive session testimony before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was sealed until 2003, and criticism has only just begun to digest its revelations. Although some have argued that Hughes offered cogent literary-critical readings of his own work in response to the senators’ illegitimate interpretations, I argue that the situation is more complicated. Hughes's readings, components of the anxious defense he mounted at the hearing, were actually quite dubious, and, if taken as definitive, would negate the political efficacy of his work. The course the executive session took does suggest, however, why Hughes's public testimony, given two days later, was as placid and accommodating as most readers have found it to be. Hughes gradually perceived, as the session proceeded, that he was not being personally targeted as literary witnesses before the House Committee on Un-American Activities had been. He was instead being maneuvered into giving testimony that served McCarthy's political purposes. Ultimately Hughes agreed to offer such testimony in public in exchange for certain concessions because the open hearing would then serve his own professional purposes as well.

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