In 1920, shortly after graduating from high school, a young African-American man named Langston Hughes traveled by train to Mexico to visit his estranged father. The elder Hughes had departed the United States some years before, alienated by his dislike of American racism and of black American culture at the time. His father's distaste for their people baffled Langston Hughes because, as he wrote later, "I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much."2
This simple statement belies the breadth of Hughes's career as a poet, novelist, essayist, and general poet laureate of the black experience during much of the twentieth century. In 1967, the year he died, Hughes told a journal, "My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all humankind."3 Hughes refused to accept the racism practiced in the United States and internalized by people like his father. He was raised by his grandmother, a descendant of a proud line of distinguished black Americans, and he saw in his people beauty, power, and grace.
Luckily for Langston, within a few years of his visit to Mexico, he would find himself at the epicenter of a cultural flowering in New York City's historically black neighborhood of Harlem. Hughes's poetry and prose celebrated the Harlem Renaissance and all that it stood for. His clear, lyrical language showed boundless creativity, as evidenced by the haul of prizes he collected for his work. But, as he made clear in his famed essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," Hughes did not write to please any critic, white or black. He wrote to capture the beauty and pain he saw in and around him. He made us look at race—and ourselves—differently.