Langston Hughes was the most versatile, popular, and influential African American writer of the twentieth century. Hughes published scores of books in his lifetime: two novels, plays, collections of short stories and essays, an autobiography, seven children’s books, poetry translations, a number of African American poetry and fiction anthologies, and fourteen volumes of verse. From the 1920’s until his death in May, 1967, Hughes was widely recognized as the unofficial poet laureate of the African American urban experience, its most dedicated and passionately eloquent voice; his international reputation has only grown in the years since.
Hughes’s career as a poet began, rather abruptly, in the spring of 1916. At the age of thirteen, he was elected class poet of his Lincoln, Illinois, grammar school. Even though he had never written a poem, Hughes dutifully produced sixteen poems in praise of his teachers and class, which he read aloud at graduation, to hearty applause. Soon thereafter, Hughes moved to Cleveland, Ohio, with his mother and stepfather. There he attended the city’s Central High School and continued to write poetry, both in the free-verse style of Chicago working-class poet Carl Sandburg and in the dialect style of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the year after his graduation from high school in 1920, Hughes had his first real publications. A number of poems appeared in succeeding issues of The Brownie’s Book, a junior version of The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).