What Langston Hughes did... and why you should care
"I live in Harlem, New York City," poet Langston Hughes once wrote of himself. "I am unmarried. I like 'Tristan,' goat's milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike 'Aida,' parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges."1
This was Langston Hughes—a writer of simple, elegant images; an observer of details; an artist who approached his work with warmth and humor. More than anything else, he celebrated the beauty of life as he saw it lived around him, particularly in the black American community to which he belonged and which he loved passionately. In a career cut short by his death from prostate cancer in 1967, Hughes wrote poetry, short stories, novels, plays, biographies, and memoirs that documented black American life. He was a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, the 1920s-era flourishing of black arts and culture that took place in his New York City neighborhood. Before it was a slogan, Hughes knew that black was beautiful. And, in all his writing, he fearlessly advocated for those who other mainstream artists pushed to the sidelines.
Hughes has often been called the poet laureate of Harlem, the writer who, more than any other, captured the culture's moods and passions. But his poetry was never provincial. By speaking for Harlem, Hughes spoke of truths that applied to all humanity. His song was set to a Harlem jazz beat, but he sang for us all.