At a Glance
Langston Hughes was an integral part of the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s and 1930s that was characterized by an artistic flowering of African American writers, musicians, and visual artists. Langston Hughes contributed to the era by bringing the rhythm of jazz, the vernacular of his people, and the social concerns of the day to his verse. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), looks at the past as a source of pride. Other poems capture the rhythm of music and beat of language, such as “Juke Box Love Song.” Still others, like “Theme for English B” and “I, Too, Sing America,” simultaneously express the desire for an integrated world and a warning to those who try to keep black people subservient.
Facts and Trivia
- Hughes was raised primarily by his grandmother. She told him important stories from the African American oral tradition that would later influence his work.
- Hughes’ father wanted him to become an engineer, so Hughes attended Columbia for a time. He left because of racial intolerance and because he wanted to spend more time writing in Harlem.
- He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Among his classmates was future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
- For a number of years, Hughes was attracted to some of the political philosophies of the Communist Party. Though accused of being a member, he never actually joined.
- Hughes died of prostate cancer in 1967 at the age of 65. His ashes are buried in Harlem under a special medallion in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Article abstract: While Hughes’s greatest achievement was his poetry, which related and celebrated the African American experience, he was also a novelist, dramatist, short story writer, and journalist, making him one of the most versatile black American writers to grow out of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902 to parents who would soon separate. His father, contemptuous of racist barriers that kept him from achieving his professional goals, settled in Mexico, where he prospered as a lawyer and landowner. His mother, refusing to accompany her husband, moved wherever work was available. She had an interest in the arts that she conveyed to her young son. She also valued a good education and, while living in Topeka, Kansas, insisted that her son be enrolled as a first grader in a white school rather than a black school. In 1909, when economic necessity demanded that she seek employment elsewhere, she took the seven-year-old child to live with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas.
A solitary child, Hughes spent his early years reading and listening to his grandmother’s stories about the black people’s heroic quest for freedom and their noble, unflinching determination to achieve liberty and justice. After her death in 1914, Hughes moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and stepfather. He finished elementary school and, as the elected class poet, read his first poem at his graduation ceremony. He then moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. Hughes read voraciously, developed a keen interest in poetry, music, and art, and served as editor of the class yearbook.
In 1920, Hughes went to live with his father in Mexico where he taught English to the children of wealthy Mexicans. In spite of fact that his materialistic father had little regard for his son’s artistic aptitude and wanted him to go abroad to continue his education, Hughes began to publish in National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) periodicals. When his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in The Crisis in 1921, the young writer became more determined than ever to grow both intellectually and aesthetically. Compromising with his father, he enrolled in Columbia University in 1921, only to leave after one year...
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