Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1901, in Joplin, Missouri. When he was very young, his parents divorced and his father, looking to escape American racism, moved to Mexico. While his mother traveled to find work, Hughes was raised by his maternal grandmother in Kansas. After his grandmother died, he joined his mother and her new husband in Lincoln, Illinois, where the 13-year-old Hughes began to write poetry.
The family continued to move around and eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes spent his high school years refining his writing skills. After spending a year with his father in Mexico, Hughes attended Columbia University in New York City. He dropped out after only a year because of the racial prejudices he saw in the students and teachers, and although he maintained a B+ average, he cared much more about experiencing African-American culture in Harlem than his studies.
In July 1921, the NAACP magazine The Crisis kickstarted Hughes’ literary career when they published his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. He wrote the poem several years earlier while on a train to visit his father in Mexico. One of his most famous works, it became Hughes’ signature poem. Its prose is evocative of Walt Whitman—one of Hughes’ primary influences—and African-American spirituals, as can be seen in its lyrical opening lines.
"I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
After leaving Columbia, Hughes worked a series of odd jobs and eventually served as a member of the crew on the S. S. Malone. His time as a seaman allowed him to travel to West Africa and all over Europe, where he spent time living in Paris and England. In 1924, he moved to Washington, DC to live with his mother.
He continued to publish poems in The Crisis and other magazines, and his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926, which included “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. The title poem, “The Weary Blues,” describes an African-American pianist in Harlem playing at a bar. While the poem mostly follows an unnamed listener enjoying the pianist’s song, the ending takes on a much more somber tone.
"The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead."
The Weary Blues
“The Weary Blues” is a perfect example of the kind of writing that Hughes was most famous for. He focused on portraying every aspect of Black life in America, both average and remarkable, good and bad. In 1926, he wrote the essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” which became the manifesto for the realistic portrayals of Black life that appeared in the works of himself and his contemporaries like Zora Neale Hurston and Claude McKay. As he wrote: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
Hughes and his contemporaries considered themselves part of the New Negro movement. The New Negro was not afraid to openly challenge racism and Jim Crow segregation. In places like Harlem, artists and intellectuals wanted to use their work to actively advocate for African-Americans across the country.
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Their approach was not universally loved, though. Other Black intellectuals took issue with Hughes publicizing what they thought was an unattractive view of Black life that furthered negative stereotypes. Still, all the criticism did not stop Hughes from becoming one of the most successful writers of the Harlem Renaissance. He became the first Black American to earn his living off of only his writing and public lectures.
His commercial success mainly stemmed from the fact that, unlike many other Harlem Renaissance artists, he appealed to the average Black American. His writing draws from the years he spent moving from city to city and working odd jobs and was more relatable to readers than the more abstract, avant-garde writing others produced. In the 1973 book Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays, critic Donald B. Gibson explains that Hughes differed from those who came before him “...in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people.”
One of Hughes’ recurring characters was a working-class Black man named Jesse B. Semple - also sometimes called “Simple” - who became the subject of several novels. Hughes first introduced the character in 1942 in his newspaper column “From Here to Yonder,” which was published in the Chicago Defender and later the New York Post. In the column and later in the books, Semple tells stories of his life to a writer named Boyd in exchange for a drink. His stories usually chronicled his troubles with work, women, and money and made the struggles of being a poor and working-class Black man in American society very clear through the simple and straightforward language Hughes used.
The Best of Simple
Throughout his career, Hughes used his poems and other writings to criticize racial and class inequality in America. Poems like “Let America Be America Again” (1936) and “I, Too, Sing America” (1945) target segregation and point out how inaccessible the American Dream is to large subsets of the population.
In 1951, he published the book-length poem suite Montage of A Dream Deferred, which chronicles a 24 hour period in Harlem. The titular "dream deferred" refers to the dream African-Americans had of economic opportunity and social equality when they moved to northern cities during the Great Migration. The most famous poem in the suite is titled "Harlem," a line from which inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun.
"What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?"
The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
As the Civil Rights Movement began in the mid-1950s, Hughes received criticism for not publishing more explicitly political work. However, later generations of writers like Alice Walker found tremendous value in his writings. Langston Hughes died of prostate cancer on May 22, 1967, leaving behind a tremendous body of work that remains extremely relevant to this day.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons.