James Mercer Langston Hughes (the first two names were soon dropped) was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. His parents, James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, separated when Hughes was young; by the time he was twelve, he had lived in several cities: Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs, and Mexico City (where his father lived). Until 1914, however, Hughes lived mainly with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence.
Hughes began writing poetry during his grammar school days in Lincoln, Illinois. While attending Cleveland’s Central High School (1916-1920), Hughes wrote his first short story, “Mary Winosky,” and published poems in the school’s literary publications. The first national publication of his work came in 1921, when The Crisis published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem had been written while Hughes was taking a train on his way to see his father in Mexico City, a visit that the young man dreaded making. His hatred for his father, fueled by his father’s contempt for poor people who could not make anything of themselves, actually led to Hughes’s being hospitalized briefly in 1919.
Hughes’s father did, however, send his son to Columbia University in 1921. Although Hughes did not stay at Columbia, his experiences in Harlem laid the groundwork for his later love affair with the city within a city. Equally important to Hughes’s later work was the time he spent at sea and abroad during this period of his life. His exposure to American blues and jazz players in Paris nightclubs and his experiences in Europe, and especially in Africa, although brief, provided a rich source of material that he used over the next decades in his writing.
The years between 1919 and 1929 have been variously referred to as the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro movement, and the Harlem Awakening. They were years of rich productivity within the black artistic community, and Hughes was an important element in that renaissance. While working as a busboy in the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., in 1925, Hughes showed some of his poems—“Jazzonia,” “Negro Dancers,” and “The Weary Blues”—to Vachel Lindsay, who read them during one of his performances that same evening. The next day, Hughes was presented to the local press as “the busboy...
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