An American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and newspaper columnist.. American poet social activist novelist playwright and columnist
Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and newspaper columnist. He is best known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.
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 later, James Hughes left for Cuba first, 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, she would instill in the young Langston Hughes a sense of indelible racial pride. He spent most of childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. 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 he would become. Later, he lived again with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois who had remarried when he was still an adolescent, and eventually in Cleveland, Ohio where he attended high school.
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, he was designated class poet because of, Hughes said later as an adult, his race, African Americans then being stereotyped as having rhythm. During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he wrote for the school paper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays. His first piece of jazz poetry, When Sue Wears Red, was written while he was still in high school. It was during this time that he 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 him and his father was troubled, causing Hughes a degree of dissatisfaction that led him to contemplate suicide at least once. Upon graduating from high school in June of 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. On these grounds, he was willing to provide financial assistance to his son. James Hughes did not support his son's desire to be a writer. 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 and his interests revolved more around the neighborhood of Harlem than his studies, though he continued writing poetry.
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 specific writers of the post-WWI era who became identified as the Lost Generation, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hughes instead 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 this position with Carter placed on the hours he spent writing, Hughes quit this job 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 and, in 1929, graduated from Lincoln University, PA, a HBCU. Hughes received a B.A. degree from this same institution and years later was awarded a Lit.D. in 1943 from it. A second honorary doctorate would be awarded to him in 1963 by Howard University, another HBCU. Barring 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.
On the issue of the sexual orientation of Hughes, academics and biographers generally agree that Hughes was a homosexual and included homosexual codes into many of his poems similar in manner to Walt Whitman, whose work Hughes would cite as another influence on his poetry, and most patently in the short story Blessed Assurance.  Arnold Rampersad, the primary biographer of Hughes, determined that Hughes exhibited a preference for other African American men in his work and life. This love of black men is evidenced in a number of reported unpublished poems to a black male lover.
First debuting in The Crisis in 1921, the prose that would become the signature poem of Hughes appeared in his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published in 1926, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
- I've known rivers:
- I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
- flow of human blood in human veins.
- My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
- I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
- I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
- I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
- I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
- went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
- bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
- I've known rivers:
- Ancient, dusky rivers.
- My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
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 comptemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class and the three considered the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain Locke, who they accused of being overly fulsome in accommodating and assimilating eurocentric values and culture for social equality. Of primary conflict were the depictions of the "low-life," that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata and the superficial divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community. Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for himself and his comtemporaries published in The Nation in 1926, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain:
- The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express
- our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
- If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not,
- it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.
- The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people
- are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure
- doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow,
- strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain
- free within ourselves.
His 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. "My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind," Hughes is quoted as saying. Moreover, Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism absent of self-hate that united people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encouraged pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. 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, his 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 threatre 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. He was offered to teach at a number of colleges, but seldom did. In 1947, Hughes taught a semester at the predominantly black Atlanta University. Hughes, in 1949, spent three months at the integrated Laboratory School of the University of Chicago as a "Visiting Lecturer on Poetry." He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poetry, operas, essays, 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. Much of his writing was inspired by the rhythms and language of the black church, and, the blues and jazz of that era, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit; an example is "Harlem" (sometimes called "Dream Deferred") from Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), from which a line was taken for the title of the play A Raisin in the Sun.
- What happens to a dream deferred?
- Does it dry up
- like a raisin in the sun?
- Or fester like a sore
- And then run?
- Does it stink like rotten meat?
- Or crust and sugar over
- like a syrupy sweet?
- Maybe it just sags
- like a heavy load.
- Or does it explode?
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 of black pride and its corresponding subject matter out of date. They considered him a racial chauvinist. He in turn found a number of writers like James Baldwin lacking in this same pride, over intellectualizing in their work, and occasionally vulgar. Though he was able to understand the main points of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, he believed that some of the younger black writers who supported it were too angry in their work. Hughes' posthumously published Panther and the Lash in 1967 was intended to show solidarity and understanding with these writers but with more skill and absent of the most virile anger and terse racial chauvinism some showed toward whites. Hughes still continued to have admirers among the larger younger generation of black writers who he often helped by offering advice to and introducing to other influential persons in the literature and publishing communities. This latter group, who happened to include Alice Walker who Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated in degrees and tones within their own work. One of these young black writers observed of Hughes, "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."
In 1960, the NAACP awarded Hughes the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961. In 1973, the first Langston Hughes Medal was awarded by the City College of New York.