James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He preferred to be known as Langston Hughes, and is noted as having been a creator of jazz poetry and as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, an African American cultural movement that occurred during the 1920s and 1930s. Hughes is also regarded as one of the most visible, well-connected, and widely published African American poets, novelists, and playwrights of his day. He was one of the few Black poets who was able to support himself solely on his writing career.
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is the poem known as Hughes's signature piece, and is also his first published work. It first appeared in 1921 in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. The Crisis also published his last poem, and more of his pieces of work appeared in the journal than in any other magazine. "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" is also contained in Langston Hughes's first published book, The Weary Blues. Some of his most well-known poems include "As I Grew Older", "Let America Be America Again", "I, Too", and "Mother to Son".
It was during high school that Langston Hughes began writing his first short stories, dramas, and poems, and he also wrote for his high school's newspaper and edited the yearbook. He went on to attend Columbia University for one year before leaving college to travel and write. Langston Hughes worked as a personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1925 before quitting and going on to work at the Wardman Park Hotel, which is where he met the poet Vachel Lindsay, who would become his mentor. After traveling abroad in West Africa and Europe, Langston Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University, Pennsylvania's historically Black university. He earned his bachelor of arts degree from there in 1929.
African American life was a theme that dominated Hughes's poems and other works, and he often tried to depict the struggles of Black people in the low and working socioeconomic classes. He was critical of intra-racism in the African American community, and he wrote what is considered to be the manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance leaders, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain", which was published in The Nation in 1926.
Aside from writing poetry, Langston Hughes was a playwright who established theater troupes in Los Angeles and Chicago. It was in Chicago that Hughes started his well-read column for the Chicago Defender that ran for 20 years. After gaining public acclaim and recognition, Langston Hughes went on to lecture, teach at a select few colleges and universities, and he continued to create poetry and other types of literature, including operas, shorts stories, novels, and children's stories.
Before he died on May 22, 1967 at the age of 65 from cancer, Langston Hughes was the recipient of many prestigious awards and honors, including earning a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, winning the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1954, election to the National Institute of Letters and Arts, and receiving the Spirngarn Medal in 1960. Hughes is well remembered for his contributions to Black literature and culture in America. He is such a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance history that his ashes are interred beneath a decorated medallion in a foyer in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, which is located in Harlem. The medallion bears a line from "The Negro Speaks of Rivers": "My soul has grown deep like the rivers".