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."blank">"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.
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.blank">National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Langston Hughes's poetry career had begun.
Hughes's father had agreed to pay for his college tuition, on the (soon-abandoned) condition that he study engineering. In 1921, Hughes thus set off for Columbia University, located in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of New York City. Just on the other side of the island was Harlem. Black residents had been drawn to that northeast Manhattan neighborhood ever since an enterprising black real estate agent, Phillip Payton, Jr., advertised the mostly-vacant area as a black Mecca following the 1903 real estate crash. By the time Langston Hughes arrived, Harlem was in the throes of the thriving period of arts and literature known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Hughes fell in love with Harlem, but not with Columbia. He felt that the mostly-white institution was discriminatory. He quit just one year after he began—1922—and instead took a job as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone so he could see the world. Hughes traveled to West Africa and to Europe. He spent six months working as a busboy in Paris, a city with a thriving community of African-American expatriate artists who found France less racist than their home country. All the while, Hughes wrote poetry. His influences included Carl Sandburg, Walt Whitman, and Laurence Dunbar, poets whose elegant language and images explored issues of identity.
In 1924, Hughes decided to head back to the States, to Washington, D.C. He landed an office job as a personal assistant to a scholar at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, but soon decided that he preferred menial work that left more time and energy for his poetry. Hughes was working as a busboy at the Waldman Park Hotel when he noticed the poet Vachel Lindsay, one of his favorites, dining alone. As he was clearing the plates away, Hughes slipped a stack of his own poetry onto Lindsay's table. Gutsy? Sure. But it worked. Lindsay read the work and put Hughes in touch with editors at Alfred A. Knopf publishing house. Langston Hughes was about to make it.
In 1926, Hughes's professional life took off. Knopf published his first book, a poetry collection entitled The Weary Blues. Along with a few other writers, including Zora Neale Hurston and Wallace Thurman, Hughes launched a literary magazine entitled Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to the Younger Negro. Among the many literary journals circulating Harlem at the time, Fire!! was an important (albeit short-lived) outlet for emerging black writers' work. He also published a groundbreaking essay called "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The essay outlined his philosophy on art and what he saw as the quintessential problem facing black artists:
"One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet," meaning, I believe, "I want to write like a white poet"; meaning subconsciously, "I would like to be a white poet"; meaning behind that, "I would like to be white." And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself."blank">Not Without Laughter was published. It followed a young black man named Sandy Rodgers through his itinerant childhood in the Midwest. The book was a critical success, and Hughes received the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature.
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.
On 26 March 1953, Hughes was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy's Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, where he fielded a barrage of questions about his previous involvement with communism. Hughes testified that he was not and had never been a member of the Communist party, and he distanced himself from some of his more radical poems of the past, saying that they had been misinterpreted. Leftists criticized Hughes after his testimony, saying that he had backed down too easily. (Hughes's questioning came near the end of McCarthy's infamous witch hunt. By fall of that year, McCarthy began his disastrous investigation into the U.S. Army, a miscalculation that ended his committee and fatally wounded his career.)
With that incident behind him, Hughes spent the last decade of his life working on a variety of projects, many of which focused on the achievements of the black community. He wrote biographies (Famous Negro Heroes of America, Marian Anderson: Famous Concert Singer), children's books (Popo and Fifina, The First Book of Jazz), and an illustrated pictorial of Harlem (Sweet Flypaper of Life). Hughes also took on Ask Your Mama: Twelve Moods for Jazz, an ambitious epic poem set to music that was never performed during his lifetime. I Wonder as I Wander, the second volume of his autobiography, appeared in 1956. He also reaped the recognition a poet laureate certainly deserves in his golden years. On 30 December 1960, the NAACP presented Hughes with the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievement by a black American, calling him the "poet laureate of the Negro race."
Langston Hughes died in New York City on 22 May 1967, following complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer. He was cremated and his ashes were interred beneath a medallion in the floor of the Arthur Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, a branch of the New York Public Library located in his beloved Harlem. His townhouse on East 127th Street was later declared a city landmark. At the time of Langston Hughes's death, a new era of black consciousness was coming of age in Harlem. This was the generation of Black Power and the Black Panthers, who had grown militant and tired of waiting for liberation. Many of them rejected the politics of Hughes's generation as too soft, too pliable, too patient with the way things were. But whether they knew it or not, the Panthers stood on Langston Hughes's shoulders. He had predicted their generation, as surely as he knew his own.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over –
Like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
Like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Father: James Nathaniel Hughes (1871-1934)
Mother: Carrie (Caroline) Mercer Langston (1873-1937)
Columbia University (1921-1922)
Lincoln University (1926-1929)
Crewman, S.S. Malone (1923)
Personal assistant, Association for the Study of African American Life and History (1925)
Busboy, Wardman Park Hotel (1925)
Foreign correspondent, Baltimore Afro-American (1937)
Founder, Harlem Suitcase Theater (1938)
Founder, New Negro Theater (1939)
Founder, Skyloft Players (1942)
Visiting Professor, Atlanta University (1947-1948)
Visiting Lecturer, University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (1949-1950)
Collections of Langston Hughes's Poetry
The Weary Blues (1926)
Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927)
The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931)
Dear Lovely Death (1931)
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932)
Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play (1932)
Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)
Freedom's Plow (1943)
Fields of Wonder (1947)
One-Way Ticket (1949)
Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961)
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967)
Not Without Laughter (1930)
The Ways of White Folks (1934)
Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)
Laughing to Keep From Crying (1952)
Simple Takes a Wife (1953)
Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955)
Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)
Something in Common and Other Stories (1963)
Simple's Uncle Sam (1965)
The Big Sea (1940)
Famous American Negroes (1954)
Marian Anderson: Famous Concert Singer (1954)
I Wonder as I Wander (1956)
A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956)
Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958)
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962)
Mule Bone (1931)
The Mulatto (1935)
Troubled Island (1936)
Little Ham (1936)
Emperor of Haiti (1936)
Don't You Want to Be Free? (1938)
Tambourines to Glory (1956)
Simply Heavenly (1957)
Black Nativity (1961)
Jericho-Jim Crow (1964)
Popo and Fifina (1932)
The First Book of the Negroes (1952)
The First Book of Jazz (1954)
The First Book of Rhythms (1954)
The First Book of the West Indies (1956)
First Book of Africa (1964)
Harmon Gold Medal for Literature (1930)
Guggenheim Fellowship (1935)
Honorary Doctor of Letters, Lincoln University (1943)
NAACP Spingarn Medal (1960)
American Academy of Arts and Letters (1961)