Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and newspaper columnist, best known as one of the principle figures in the movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes is best remembered today as a poet, though he exhibited considerable talent for prose as well. His poetry is infused with a uniquely African-American sensibility, and written in the plain tones of American speech. Hughes cited Walt Whitman as one of the greatest influences on his poetry. Hughes' poetry, like Whitman's, is prophetic, all-encompassing, and spoken from the heart.
Hughes remains a major influence to African-American writers and poets, as well as to American poets of all races and creeds. He has been criticized, at times, for his somewhat antiquated views on racial pride, as well as for his socialist sympathies. His poetry, however, is still refreshingly new and powerfully moving even after more than half a century. Hughes' poems, written in a style that followed the patterns of everyday speech, are some of the most strikingly direct in the English language—and Hughes' messages of equity, harmony, and unity are of as much importance today as they have ever been.
Langston Hughes was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, the son of Carrie Langston Hughes, a teacher, and her husband, James Nathaniel Hughes. After abandoning his family and the resulting legal dissolution of the marriage, James Hughes left for Cuba, then Mexico due to enduring racism in the United States. After the separation of his parents, young Langston was left to be raised mainly by his grandmother, Mary Langston, as his mother sought employment. Through the black American oral tradition of storytelling, Hughes' grandmother would instill in the young Langston a sense of indelible racial pride. After the death of his grandmother, he went to live with family friends, James and Mary Reed, for two years. His childhood was not an entirely happy one due to an unstable early life, but it was one that heavily influenced the poet's work. Later, Hughes lived again with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois, and eventually in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended high school.
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, he was designated class poet because of his race. African-Americans were stereotyped as "having rhythm." During high school in Cleveland, he wrote for the school paper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poems, and dramatic plays. His first piece of jazz poetry, When Sue Wears Red, was written while he was still in high school. The poem, despite being written so early, gives the reader a glimpse into Hughes' musical, vernacular verse style:
It was during high school that Hughes discovered his love of books. From this early period in his life, Hughes would cite as influences on his poetry the American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. Hughes spent a brief period of time with his father in Mexico in 1919. The relationship between Hughes and his father was troubled, causing Hughes such a degree of dissatisfaction that he contemplated suicide at least once. Upon graduating from high school in June, 1920, Hughes returned to live with his father, hoping to convince him to provide money to attend Columbia University. Hughes later said that prior to arriving in Mexico again, "I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much." Initially, his father hoped for Langston to attend a university anywhere but in the United States and to study for a career in engineering. Eventually, Langston and his father came to a compromise: Langston would study engineering so long as he could attend Columbia. His tuition provided, Hughes left his father after more than a year of living with him. While at Columbia in 1921, Hughes managed to maintain a B+ grade average. He left in 1922 because of racial prejudice within the institution, his interests revolving more around the neighborhood of Harlem than his studies.
Hughes worked various odd jobs before serving a brief tenure as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone in 1923, spending 6 months traveling to West Africa and Europe. In Europe, Hughes left the S.S. Malone for a temporary stay in Paris. Unlike other writers of the post-WWI era who became identified as the Lost Generation—writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald—Hughes spent time in Paris during the early 1920s becoming part of the black expatriate community. In November 1924, Hughes returned to the states to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. Hughes again found work doing various odd jobs before gaining white-collar employment in 1925 as a personal assistant to the scholar Carter G. Woodson within the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History. Not satisfied with the demands of the work and time-constraints that it placed on the hours he spent writing, Hughes quit his job with Carter for one as a busboy in a hotel. It was while working as a busboy that Hughes would encounter the poet Vachel Lindsay. Impressed with the poems Hughes showed him, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a new black poet, though by this time Hughes' earlier work had already been published in magazines and was about to be collected into his first book of poetry.
The following year, Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University, PA., graduating in 1929. Hughes received a B.A. degree from this same institution and years later was awarded a Lit.D. in 1943. A second honorary doctorate would be awarded to him in 1963 by Howard University. Despite numerous travels that also included parts of the Caribbean and West Indies, Harlem was Hughes’s primary home for the remainder of his life.
In New York City on May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer at the age of 65. The ashes of Langston Hughes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer leading to the auditorium named for him within the Arthur Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Many of Langston Hughes' personal papers reside in the Langston Hughes Memorial Library on the campus of Lincoln University as well as at the James Weldon Johnson Collection within the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers," first debuting in The Crisis in 1921, was the poem that would become Hughes' signature work, appearing in his first book in 1926. The poem, drawing strongly on the influence of Whitman, speaks in a prophetic tone to the history of African civilization, and to the future of African peoples in an America of slavery, democracy, and strife:
Hughes' life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas who collectively would create the short lived magazine Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class and in particular the black intellectuals W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain Locke, whom they accused of having been overly accommodating to whites, assimilating eurocentric values and culture for the sake of racial tolerance. The primary problem that Hughes and others had with these earlier black intellectuals hinged on their depictions of the "low-life"—that is, the real lives of poor blacks in the lower strata of society. Du Bois and others had sought, however subtly, to distance themselves from the "low-life" and the black vernacular that was a central part of black life; Hughes believed that only by embracing vernacular, and all the culture of the "low-life," could any black poet be true to his roots. Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for this point of view, published in The Nation in 1926, entitled The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:
Hughes' poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African-American identity and its diverse culture. Hughes wrote that, "My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,". Moreover, Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism that united people of African descent and Africans across the globe, encouraging pride in their own diverse black folk culture. His African-American race consciousness and cultural nationalism would influence many black writers such as Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén , Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire.
In 1930, Hughes' first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy whose family must deal with a variety of struggles imposed upon them due to their race and class in society, in addition to relating to one another. Hughes' first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. These stories provided a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. In 1938, Hughes would establish the Harlem Suitcase Theater followed by the New Negro Theater in 1939 in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1941. The same year Hughes established his theater troupe in Los Angeles, his ambition to write for the movies materialized when he co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South. Further hopes by Hughes to write for the lucrative movie trade were thwarted because of racial discrimination within the industry. Through the black publication Chicago Defender, Hughes in 1943 gave creative birth to "Jesse B. Semple," often referred to and spelled "Simple," the everyday black man in Harlem who offered musings on topical issues of the day. The character would become widely popular among whites and blacks, and Hughes would continue writing articles in the voice of Semple for a number of years. Hughes also wrote works for children, and, with the encouragement of his best friend and writer, Arna Bontemps, and patron and friend, Carl Van Vechten, two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, as well as translating several works of literature into English, most notably the poetry of Frederico Garcia Lorca.
Much of Hughes' writing was inspired by the rhythms and language of the black church, and, the blues and jazz music of Hughes' era—music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit.
During the mid 1950s and 1960s, Hughes' popularity among the younger generation of black writers varied as his reputation increased worldwide. With the gradual advancement toward racial integration, many black writers considered his writings out of date. Hughes in turn found a number of young writers, most notably James Baldwin, lacking in the "pride and fire" that had characterized his own times. He criticized Baldwin and other young black writers for over-intellectualizing their work, and he championed the simplicity of plain vernacular to the end of his life. Hughes still continued to have admirers among the younger generation of black writers, whom he often helped by offering advice and providing patronage. This latter group of young black writers, including Alice Walker, whom Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated. One of Hughes' greatest admirers would later write, "Langston set a tone, a standard of brotherhood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow. You never got from him, 'I am the Negro writer,' but only 'I am a Negro writer.' He never stopped thinking about the rest of us."
Hughes, like many black writers and artists of his time, was drawn to the promise of Communism as an alternative to a segregated America. Many of his lesser-known political writings have been collected in two volumes published by the University of Missouri Press and reflect his attraction to Communism. An example is the poem A New Song:
In 1932, Hughes became part of a group of disparate blacks who went to the Soviet Union to make a film depicting the plight of most blacks living in the United States at the time. The film was never made, but Hughes was given the opportunity to travel extensively through the Soviet Union and to the Soviet controlled regions in Central Asia, the latter parts usually closed to Westerners. Hughes would also manage to travel to China and Japan before returning home to the States.
Hughes himself was never a member of the Communist party; nevertheless his poetry was frequently published in the newspaper of the Communist Party of the United States and he was involved in initiatives supported by Communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys and support for the Spanish Republic. Hughes was also involved in other Communist-led organizations like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, even though he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant. He signed a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin's purges and joined the American Peace Mobilization in 1940, working to keep the U.S. from participating in WWII. Hughes initially did not favor black American involvement in the war because of the irony of U.S. Jim Crow laws existing at the same time a war was being fought against Fascism and the Axis Powers. He came to support the war effort and black American involvement in it after coming to understand that blacks would also be contributing to their struggle for civil rights at home. Over time, Hughes would distance himself from his most radical poems. In 1959 came the publication of his Selected Poems. Absent from this group of poems was his most politically controversial work.
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