In 1932, Hughes traveled with a group of African-American artists to the Soviet Union to write a film about the treatment of black people in the United States. The film was never made but, like many African-American intellectuals in the 1930s, Hughes found himself drawn to communism, a party whose views on racial equality were more liberal than mainstream American politics. Though he never formally joined the Communist party, some of Hughes's poetry took on a radical tone, and he began exploring deeper—and often darker—issues in his writing.
Throughout his professional life, Hughes's creativity expressed itself in a wide range of genres. In 1934, he published the short story collection The Ways of White Folks, an at-times bitter reflection on race relations. He traveled to Spain to cover the civil war as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. With Zora Neale Hurston, he wrote The Mulatto, a play that dealt with issues of racial identity (the two writers, once close friends, split over a dispute on the play's authorship). He also founded three theater companies in the late 1930s and early 1940s, in Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Though few of Hughes's own plays were commercially successful, the companies became important outlets for other black actors and dramatists.
By World War II, Hughes's politics had drifted back toward the center.16 In 1940, he published the first volume of his memoir, The Big Sea, in which he confessed, "my best poems were all written when I felt the worst."17 He also began writing a regular column for the weekly Chicago Defender newspaper, where he created a character that would become one of his best-loved: Jesse B. Simple. The fictional Simple was a plainspoken Harlem resident who exchanged frank observations on life and race with a buddy at a local bar (Hughes was inspired in part by a man he had actually met at a Harlem drinking spot). The Chicago Defender columns were eventually compiled into five separate books, one of which—1954's Simple Takes a Wife – received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for its exploration of racial issues.
In 1951, Hughes published the poetry collection Montage of a . The book contained the poem "Harlem." The poem's powerful imagery and simple, haunting language was an anthem of Harlem's simmering desires, anger, and tensions. It is best remembered for its opening lines: "What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?"18