In this initial volume of his autobiography, Langston Hughes tells of his struggles to become a writer and develop his identity as an African American man in the early 20th-century United States. Although today we know him as a giant of American letters, his path to success was not easy. Throughout, Hughes emphasizes the importance of determination and hard work, but he also stares unflinchingly at the ingrained injustice in many aspects of U.S. society. Along with the social and legal restrictions, Hughes confronts the psychological damage that his father experienced and in turn inflicted on him.
Even more, the reader sees Hughes mature through his adolescence and studies in Mexico, which were followed by university studies at Columbia and life in Harlem after leaving school. Perhaps even more important was the period of rambling adventures in Europe, during which he began to write poetry seriously in Paris. Returning to New York, Hughes found a community, especially within what became known as the Harlem Renaissance, but also white writers and other creative artists. Hughes discusses the benefits and, increasingly, the restrictions of the patronage of a wealthy white woman who encouraged him to stay with “primitive,” Africa-linked rhythms and themes that she thought appropriate for black writers; this patron, whom he does not name, was Charlotte Osgood Mason. His necessary break from her helped firmly establish his independent path.
This autobiography brings the reader up to 1931, the year Hughes won a major literary prize, the Harmon Award; its critical acclaim and small stipend provided incentive and support to continue building what became an incomparable literary career. His later works included two more volumes of autobiography.