Who was Langston Hughes?
James Mercer Langston Hughes was a well-known African American writer and social activist. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. However, a new research conducted in 2018, states that Hughes might have been born the previous year.
A well-known poet, Langston Hughes was also famous for writing plays, novels, essays, newspapers columns and short stories. He was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement that flourished in the 1920s within African American communities in the North and Midwest regions of the United States.
Most of Langston Hughes writings, ranging from poetry and plays to novels and newspaper columns, deal with the subject of African American experience. Hughes’s works capture the lives of black community, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes. The main focus of his writings was the real lives of African Americans in the lower social-economic strata. He is also one of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry.
Childhood & Early Life Of Langston Hughes
According to The New York Times, Langston Hughes was born into a distinguished family. His parents, James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Langston, separated soon after his birth. Hughes’s father, James Hughes, then moved to Mexico. While his mother, Carrie Mercer Langston, worked for a time as a traveling agent for The Plain dealer.
Since his mother had to travel a lot, Langston Hughes was raised primarily in Lawrence, Kansas, by his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston. Mary Patterson was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. She was a keen reader and great storyteller. She transferred her love of literature to little Langston Hughes and made him aware of the importance of education. Then Hughes, a lonely child, occupied himself with lots of books and the stories told to him by his grandmother.
Hughes spent the first thirteen years of his life with his grandmother. After Mary Patterson’s death in 1914, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her new husband. Seeking their employment, the couple along with Langston Hughes moved to several cities. But despite moving from one place to another, Hughes was always a good student and excelled in his studies.
The family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was during this time that Hughes began writing poetry. He wrote his first poem when he was merely an eighth grade student. He published some of his poems in the school publication. At school, one of Hughes’s teachers also introduced him to the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. He later cited both these poets as his primary influences.
Langston Hughes’s Education & Career
Langston Hughes graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920. After his graduation from high school, he wrote the poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. The poem appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Soon after its publication, the poem brought him considerable attention.
After high school, Langston Hughes traveled to Mexico hoping to reconcile with his father who lived there, but his attempt was unsuccessful. He then went to Columbia University, New York City, in 1921. But after one year he dropped out of the university due to racism prevailing at the campus.
After dropping out of Columbia University, Langston Hughes continued his writing career. He wrote many poems, novels, short stories, essays, plays, operas, and works for children. He also worked as an assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. Moreover, Hughes also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In 1924, Hughes began to explore Harlem, a district of New York city, and subsequently formed a permanent attachment to what he called the “great dark city”.
In 1926, Langston Hughes received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He received his degree from that university in 1929.
Langston Hughes & Harlem Renaissance
Langston Hughes is one of the most important figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that focused on literature, music, theater, art, and politics. The main purpose of the movement was to re-conceptualize ‘the Negro’ apart from the white stereotypes. It provided all the African American intellectuals an opportunity to look at their African heritage with new eyes and a desire to reconnect with a heritage long detested or misunderstood by both Whites and Blacks.
Langston Hughes took a stand for the possibilities of Black art and made his mark in the artistic movement by breaking boundaries in poetry. He was the first to use jazz rhythms and dialect to depict the life of urban Black people in his work. His favorite pastime at that time was to sit in the clubs and listen to the blues as he wrote his poetry.
Hughes published a manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation in response to George Schuyler’s article “The Negro-Art Hokum’ in 1926. Schuyler in his article discounted the existence of ‘Negro art’ and argued that African-American artists shared European influences with their white counterparts, and were, therefore, producing the same kind of works.
While Hughes, through ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’, described Black artists rejecting their racial identity. He further stated that instead of ignoring their identity, ‘We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual, dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.’ Thus the importance of pursuing art from a Black perspective became the clarion call of the artists during the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes also helped to launch Fire!!, an influential African-American literary magazine that exerted a marked impact on the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes Poems & Other Works
The first book of Langston Hughes’s poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. Moreover, in 1927 appeared his second volume of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew.
In 1929, Langston Hughes published his first novel, Not Without Laughter. Soon after its publication, the novel became commercially successful and won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Also, it convinced Hughes that he could make a living as a writer.
Langston Hughes published his first collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, in 1934. One of his most celebrated poems, Let America Be America Again, was published in July 1936. The poem examined the unrealized hopes and dreams of the country’s lower class society by expressing a sense of hope that the American Dream would one day arrive.
Langston Hughes also served as a war correspondent for several American newspapers during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. Furthermore, his autobiography up to age 28, The Big Sea, was published in 1940. The same year he wrote various successful columns for Chicago Defender.
Over the next two decades, Langston Hughes continued his prolific output. In 1949, Hughes wrote a play about the revolution that led to the foundation of the black republic of Haiti. It is this play that inspired the opera Troubled Island. Hughes also published another anthology of work, The Poetry of the Negro, in 1949.
The most celebrated poem of Langston Hughes, ‘Harlem’ beginning with a line ‘What happens to A Dream Deferred?, was published in 1951. The poem tells how the American Dream falls short for the African Americans.
In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes also wrote various plays. Some of them are: Little Ham( 1936), Emperor of Haiti (1936), Don’t You Want to be Free? (1938).
Langston Hughes Death & Legacy
Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 in New York due to complications from prostate cancer. He left behind a huge body of lasting work that still carries influence today. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission. Moreover, the East 127th Street has been renamed as “Langston Hughes Place.”
Further, the U.S. Postal Service, in February 2002, issued a commemorative stamp honoring Langston Hughes. This stamp was, in fact, the 25th in the Black Heritage series and marked Hughes’s 100th birthday.
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