Study Guide

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes Introduction

"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."blank" rel="nofollow">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.

Langston Hughes Trivia

A cafe and literary meeting spot named Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C.'s historic U Street district celebrates Langston Hughes's brief tenure as a busboy in the city.

Hughes was elected Class Poet upon graduating from the eighth grade in Lincoln, Illinois. Looking back, he saw evidence of prejudice in the decision, which he noted with his typical humor: "I was a victim of a stereotype […] There were only two of us N**** 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 N****es 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."

Hughes never married, and never openly discussed his sexuality during his lifetime. Many biographers believe that Hughes was gay, citing the homoerotic images in some of his poems and his admission of a sexual experience with another man during his youth.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was one of Hughes's classmates at Lincoln University.

Hughes was five feet four inches tall. In the 2004 film Brother to Brother, he was played by six feet one inch actor Daniel Sunjata.

Though the New York City Preservation Committee declared Hughes's home a landmark in 1981, the house is privately owned and is not open to the public. A non-profit group is trying to resurrect the ivy-covered townhouse as a museum and performing space.

"Black Nativity," Hughes's gospel retelling of the birth of Jesus, will soon be made into a movie. Writer and director Kasi Lemmons expects that the movie could be out as soon as 2009.

Langston Hughes Resources

Books

Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994)
Put on some jazz, find a comfy chair, and curl up with the work of one of America's greatest poets. You'll find your own Hughes favorites, but we're happy to suggest a few to get you started: "Harlem," "I, Too," and "The N**** Speaks of Rivers." Delve in and discover why Hughes was the poet laureate of Harlem.

Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter (1930)
Hughes's first novel won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature. It is a semi-autobiographical piece about Sandy Rodgers, a young black man shunted between relatives and family friends while coming of age in the American Midwest. Sound like anyone you've heard of?

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (1940)
The Big Sea is the first volume of Hughes's autobiography (the second, I Wonder as I Wander, appeared in 1956 and is also a good book). This memoir charts Hughes's life as a young boy under his grandmother's care in Kansas, and the early influences that shaped his view of the world.

Langston Hughes, Laughing to Keep From Crying (1952)
Though his poetry got most of the attention, Hughes was also an accomplished short story writer. This collection showcases his trademark wit and humor, literally using laughter to keep the tragedies of life at bay. His flair for the short story earned him the nickname "The O. Henry of Harlem."

Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America (1986) and The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World (2002)
Rampersad's two-volume exploration of Hughes's life is the definitive biography of the poet. He charts Hughes's personal and artistic development alongside the tremendous changes that took place in American culture and society during his lifetime. It's not exactly light reading, but for serious Hughes junkies it's required.

Arna Bontemps, American N**** Poetry (1963)
Arna Bontemps was an African-American poet, librarian, and scholar. He was also Langston Hughes's best friend. Bontemps wrote dozens of books, mostly biographies and other scholarly studies of black American culture. As a man who lived amidst some of the greatest African-American poets, his selections of American N**** poetry are fascinating.

Music

The Langston Hughes Project
This traveling show is a multi-media interpretation of Hughes's epic jazz poem Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz. According to the project, Hughes's score for the poem drew upon "blues and Dixieland, gospel songs, boogie woogie, bebop and progressive jazz, Latin 'cha cha' and Afro-Cuban mambo music, German lieder, Jewish liturgy, West Indian calypso, and African drumming." It was never performed during his lifetime, but you can see it onstage now.

Louis Armstrong
Hughes dedicated his epic poem Ask Your Mama to "Louis Armstrong, the greatest horn blower of them all." We're not going to argue with his judgment. Armstrong was—is—a jazz legend, and his soulful trumpet notes can't be matched.

Duke Ellington
This jazz icon was a fellow fixture of the Harlem Renaissance. Ellington grew up in Washington, D.C., the city where Hughes was discovered as a poet. Ellington also lived in New York City, where he is now buried.

Marian Anderson
Singer Marian Anderson was as famous for her gorgeous contralto voice as for her courage. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow the African-American singer to perform before an integrated audience at Constitution Hall. A political uproar ensued, resulting in Anderson's famous concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. To honor her, Hughes wrote the 1954 biography Marian Anderson: Famous Concert Singer.

Dizzy Gillespie
This trumpet artist came of age in Europe and New York, along with fellow legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Thelonious Monk. He's also famous as the guy whose cheeks puff out like a blowfish as he plays, a distention of his cheek muscles that is officially known in the medical community as "Gillespie Pouches."

Cab Calloway
This entertainer was a fixture on the Harlem nightclub scene and even in clubs where blacks were not permitted as patrons. He roused the crowds with his singing voice and trademark "Hi de ho!" We're pretty sure Langston Hughes caught Calloway's shows at least a few times at places like the Savoy Ballroom and the Renaissance Ballroom.

Images

Langston Hughes
A portrait of the artist as a young man.

Hughes at Work
Langston Hughes at his trusty typewriter.

Hughes in Harlem
The poet in his beloved adopted neighborhood.

Winold Reiss Portrait
A drawing of Hughes by artist Winold Reiss.

Playful Hughes
A smiling Langston Hughes.

Senate Hearing
A photo of Hughes as he testifies before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Harlem Neighbors
An older Hughes with children from his neighborhood.

Movies & TV

Way Down South (1939)
Hughes co-wrote the screenplay for this musical, featuring child star Bobby Breen. Despite Hughes's lifelong attempt to smash stereotypes of black Americans in his work, the movie contains some uncomfortable racial caricatures in its portrayal of post-Civil War Louisiana. Former slaves are portrayed as simple, cheerful folk who happily accept their lot in life. The scene of Breen singing the spiritual "Motherless Child" is just weird.

Raisin in the Sun (1961)
The title of this movie (an adaptation of the play by Lorraine Hansberry) comes from a line in Hughes's poem "Harlem": "What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up/ Like a raisin in the sun?" The script focuses on the Younger family, a poor black family in Chicago in the 1950s. The play was the first on Broadway that was written by a black woman and directed by a black person. The film stars Sydney Poitier and is an American classic.

Looking for Langston (1989)
Though it was never confirmed in his lifetime, scholars widely believe that Langston Hughes was gay. Many in the gay community honor Hughes as an icon, noting the series of unpublished poems he wrote to an unidentified man named Beauty. This award-winning British short film is a collage of life as a gay black man during the Harlem Renaissance, splicing archival footage with acted scenes.

Hughes' Dream Harlem (2002)
This made-for-TV documentary is an excellent look at Hughes's life. The film includes tours of Hughes's favorite hangouts in Harlem and interviews with people who knew the poet well.

Salvation (2003)
This short film is based on Hughes's memoir The Big Sea. It is a dramatic interpretation of a scene in which a young Hughes finds himself in a moral quandary at a church revival, struggling with disillusionment with the promises of salvation, and with his desire to placate the preacher and the aunt who brought him there.

Brother to Brother (2004)
This film imagines the artistic community of 1920s Harlem. A young art student befriends an elderly homeless man named Bruce, who narrates the story of his life growing up as a young black gay writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Bruce recounts his friendships with such historical figures as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston.

Websites

American Academy of Poets
This very useful site contains Hughes's biography and bibliography, along with links to his poetry, his contemporaries, and critical scholarship about his work and about that era. It also has a link to an audio clip of Hughes reading his poem "The N**** Speaks of Rivers."

Modern American Poetry
If you're writing a paper, this site is great for finding secondary sources. It contains links to articles about Hughes written by a variety of authoritative sources, including his biographer Arnold Rampersad. It also has some obscure primary documents, like a scanned image of one of his newspaper dispatches from the Spanish Civil War.

Jazz Age Culture—Pittsburg State University
Pittsburg State's outstanding online resource on American jazz in the twentieth century delivers yet again. This page looks at the Harlem Renaissance and its notable contributors, including Langston Hughes. It has links to works by and about Hughes as well.

America's Library
This site, sponsored by the Library of Congress, has a timeline of events in Hughes's life along with info about his biography and poems. It's targeted to slightly younger readers but, hey, short words and bright colors never hurt anyone.

Drop Me Off in Harlem
This site, sponsored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, leads you on a tour through the Harlem Renaissance. Here you can learn more about Langston Hughes's contemporaries in literature, art, and music. Each artist's biography shows his or her links to other artists. By clicking on Zora Neale Hurston's page, for example, you learn how she and Hughes wrote the play The Mulatto to combat racial stereotypes.

Harlem Renaissance
This multimedia site, created by John Carroll University, is an interesting introduction to the Harlem Renaissance. In addition to the era's well-known contributors to the worlds of music and literature, the site also highlights lesser-known aspects of the period such as religion and education.

Video & Audio

"The N**** Speaks of Rivers"
Langston Hughes reads his poem.

The Langston Hughes Project
Video of a performance of Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, a multi-media interpretation of Hughes's twelve-part epic poem. Very cool.

"I, Too"
Hughes reads his poem and shares his thoughts about it.

Denzel, Too
Denzel Washington recites "I, Too" in the film The Great Debaters.

The Weary Blues
An interpretation of Hughes's poem, set to music.

Raisin in the Sun
Actor Danny Glover reads the poem "Harlem."

"Motherless Child"
Child star Bobby Breen sings in the 1939 film Way Down South, co-written by Hughes. Watch and wonder: what the heck is a little white boy doing singing a spiritual to an audience of ex-slaves?

Primary Sources

The Weary Blues
Poems from Langston Hughes's book The Weary Blues.

"A Dream Deferred"
This poem is also known as "Harlem." You might recognize the opening line, "What happens to a dream deferred?"

"The N**** Artist and the Racial Mountain"
Hughes's noteworthy 1926 essay.

"The Blues I'm Playing"
A short story by Hughes.

"The Night Funeral in Harlem"
A Hughes poem.

"Let America Be America Again"
Hughes's poem, written in 1938 and first published in Esquire.

Hughes on Scottsboro
A series of poems Hughes wrote about the trial of the Scottsboro Boys of Alabama.

Obituary
Hughes's 1967 obituary in The New York Times.

Spanish Civil War Broadside
An image of one of Hughes's dispatches from the Spanish Civil War.

Langston Hughes on the IRT
This great story about commuters' reaction to Hughes's poem "Luck," which was posted on the New York subway, highlights the many different emotions a poem can evoke.