Langston Hughes was born 1 February 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, the son of James Nathaniel Hughes and Caroline Mercer Langston. In a memoir, Hughes lamented, "unfortunately, I am not black"—meaning of 100% African heritage—but rather "brown," or of mixed race.4 Both of Hughes's parents were of mixed-race descent. His non-black forebears included a white slaveholder who fathered children with a woman he owned, a French trader, and a Cherokee Indian woman. Hughes's mother came from a distinguished family of respected black educators and activists. Langston Hughes's great-uncle on his mother's side, John Mercer Langston, was the first black Congressman from Virginia. His grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, attended Oberlin College at a time when few women of any race were able to pursue higher education. Mary Patterson Langston's first husband died in John Brown's Ferry, and her second husband—Langston Hughes's maternal grandfather—was an activist for abolition and black education.
Hughes's parents split when he was very young and his father moved to Cuba, and then to Mexico. His mother traveled in search of work while he was sent to live with his maternal grandmother. As Hughes recalled in his memoir, Mary Patterson Langston often took her small grandson in her lap and told him stories about abolitionists and courageous slaves who struggled for their freedom. Her tales impressed upon Hughes the nobility of black people, and the importance of stoicism—and even laughter—in the face of hardship. "Through my grandmother's stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother's stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought. But no crying," Hughes wrote. "When my grandmother died, I didn't cry, either. Something about my grandmother's stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything."5 The use of humor as a shield from pain marked Hughes's work, in his mordant wit and in titles like Not Without Laughter and Laughing to Keep From Crying.
Hughes had a rootless and often lonely childhood, living with his grandmother in Kansas and then with family friends after her death in 1912. He found refuge in literature. "I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas,"6 he wrote. In 1914, Hughes moved with his mother and new stepfather to Lincoln, Illinois. He was elected class poet at his eighth-grade graduation in 1916, an honor he received with some skepticism. "I was a victim of a stereotype," he noted with characteristic tongue-in-cheek humor. "There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows—except us—that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me class poet. I felt I couldn't let my white classmates down, and I've been writing poetry ever since."7 Soon after, the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio.
After graduating from high school in Cleveland in 1920, Hughes decided to travel to Mexico to be with his father. James Nathaniel Hughes had left the United States to escape racism, but also to distance himself from the African-American community, whose culture he disdained. His son, who felt such pride in his African-American heritage, found this self-loathing baffling. "I didn't understand it," Hughes later wrote, of his father's dislike of black culture, "because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much."8 On the train ride down to Mexico, as the car crossed the Mississippi River, Hughes looked out the window and thought of all that rivers had meant to black people—slaves sold down the river in pre-Civil War South, the Euphrates and the Nile in Africa—and wrote the poem "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.9
After an uncomfortable year with his father, with whom he did not get along, Hughes returned to the United States. In 1921, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was published in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Langston Hughes's poetry career had begun.