The Life and Times of Langston Hughes: Who He Was and How the Poet Changed the Literary Landscape
Hughes’ work continues to be published and translated into many languages across the globe.
Who was Langston Hughes?
Throughout the course of history, names such as Maya Angelou, Edgar Allan Poe, and Pablo Neruda are some of the most prolific and exemplary people who contributed to poetry and other forms of literary art.
But within that list of well-known figures who shaped the power of words happens to be poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes, who is renowned as one of the primary figures within the Harlem Renaissance.
Who Was Langston Hughes?
Langston Hughes is well revered and known as a poet as well as his matter-of-fact style of conveying messages through his work.
Hughes considered Moby Dick author Walt Whitman one of the most significant influences on his poetry.
Like Whitman’s work, Hughes is a reflection of what the heart wants to say and is fateful.
Hughes’ poems were written to match the everyday vernacular of people and had his messages of unity, equity, and peace in the country.
Hughes’ Early Life and Upbringing
His father left for Cuba and Mexico over racism in the United States after abandoning the family and terminating the marriage with his mom.
Hughes was raised with his grandmother after his parents’ separation as his mom was looking for work.
With storytelling, Hughes’ grandmother would inform him of the imperishable sense of pride in oneself for who they are.
After his grandmother passed away, he went to stay with family friends, James and Mary Reed, for a couple of years.
Afterward, Hughes ended up living with his mother again in Lincoln, Illinois, and eventually in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school.
In grade school in Lincoln, Hughes was the resident class poet.
While in Cleveland, he wrote for his high school’s newspaper and was the yearbook editor.
He also started to dabble in the creative writing space, writing his first short stories, poems, and dramatic plays.
When Sue Wears Red, Hughes’ first work in the jazz poetry space, was written while he was still in high school.
Hughes realized how much he was enamored by books in high school.
In 1919, Hughes then spent some time with his father in Mexico.
After graduating from high school the next year, in June 1920, Hughes went back to live with his father and hoped to persuade him to give him money for Columbia University in New York City.
The Harlem Renaissance
After graduating high school, Hughes spent time in Mexico with his father.
During this time in the country, his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers“ was published in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) The Crisis magazine and received adoration.
In 1921 Hughes came back to the United States and briefly attended Columbia University. While there, he swiftly became a part of Harlem’s cultural movement, also known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Bustling in the 1920s and 1930s, The Harlem Renaissance was a cultural art and intellectual revival of African American culture through literature, politics, fashion, and more in Harlem, New York.
But the following year, in 1922, Hughes dropped out of Columbia and took on odd jobs before becoming a freighter steward, leading him to Africa and Spain.
In 1924, he decided to get off the boat and lived briefly in Paris, where he continued to write and publish his poetry.
Hughes’ Notable Bodies of Work Amid The Harlem Renaissance
“The Weary Blues”
The poem “The Weary Blues” was published in 1925 and is about the powerful and painful aspects of Black art.
The poem chronicles a blues singer playing in a bar in Harlem in the late hours of the night. And the singer’s music hones on the pain felt when living in a discriminatory place.
“The Weary Blues” also won first prize in the Opportunity magazine literary competition.
Hughes even got a scholarship to go to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.
While there, his poetry sparked the interest of the critic and novelist Carl Van Vechten.
Van Vechten used his connections in the literary world to help Hughes’ first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, get published. And it did in 1926 by Knopf.
Hughes was also one of the first to use jazz rhythms and the dialect associated with them in his work to give a glimpse of urban life for Black people.
“Let America Be America Again”
“Let America Be America Again” was published In July 1936 in Esquire and was one of Hughes’ most acclaimed poems.
It looked at the hopes and dreams of the nation’s lower class, highlighting their optimism about the American Dream being able to happen one day.
Eventually, Hughes changed and republished “Let America Be America Again” into a small collection of poems called A New Song.
“Harlem” (A Dream Deferred)
Hughes penned “Harlem” in 1951 to be a part of a book-length sequence, Montage of a Dream Deferred.
It was based on blues and jazz music and was created with the intention
To be read as one long poem. It delves into the lives and the mindsets of a Black community in Harlem amid the countless moments they faced racial inadequacies.
One of the most memorable lines in the poem is, “What happens to a dream deferred?”
And the play, A Raisin in the Sun, was named after the third line in the poem.
Other Revered Poems and Work
Not Without Laughter
After graduating from Lincoln University in 1929, Hughes went ahead and published his first novel, Not Without Laughter.
The book is the tale of a Black child’s coming-of-age story in a small, primarily white Kansas town regarding the effects of class and religion.
The Big Sea, “Simple” and Theater
The Big Sea was published in 1940 and was Hughes’ autobiography up until the age of 28.
During this time, Hughes started contributing a column to the Chicago Defender.
In that role, he also created a comic character named Jesse B. Semple, also known as “Simple.”
Simple is a Black Everyman that Hughes used to further examine the urban, working-class themes in the black community to discuss race issues.
The columns were highly respected, and “Simple” would become the center of Hughes’ books and theater performances, such as the Broadway musical Street Scene in the late 1940s.
The play’s success helped Hughes purchase a home in Harlem.
He also taught a creative writing class at Atlanta University, which is presently Clark Atlanta University.
Hughes was also a guest lecturer at a university in Chicago for months.
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP
Released in 1941, Hughes’ book, and contains photos; it discusses the formation of the NAACP, the African American efforts before the organization was created, World War II, and African Americans’ experiences with the law and politics.
The book also discusses the interracial membership of the NAACP and the organization’s court victories in cases seeking the end of anti-Black laws.
Hughes’ Controversial Work
During this period, Hughes and other black writers and intellectuals were drawn to some of the ideologies of Communism as an alternative to the segregated United States.
An example of something Hughes wrote that appeared to reflect his feelings toward the message of political theory is his poem “A New Song.”
Here are some lines within the poem:
I speak in the name of the black millions
Awakening to action.
Let all others keep silent a moment
I have this word to bring,
This thing to say,
This song to sing
It was published by the University of Missouri Press.
In 1932, Hughes became part of the black people with differing views who ventured out to the Societ Union to make a film showing the hardship many Black people faced in the United States at the time.
Although the film never happened, Hughes was able to travel across the Soviet Union and Soviet-managed areas in Central Asia, which were usually blocked off to Westerners.
It’s worth noting Hughes himself was not a member of the Communist Party ever.
Still, his poetry was often published in the newspaper of the Communist Party of the United States.
The poet was also associated with other Communist-led organizations like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. However, he was more of an ally that an active member of the group.
In 1938 he signed a document supporting Joseph Stalin’s purges. He also joined the American Peace Mobilization in 1940, which was working to try and prevent the United States from getting into World War II.
Over time, Hughes would pull himself away from his radical work.
Hughes’ Death and Lasting Legacy
In May 1967, Hughes passed away from prostate cancer obstacles.
In homage to his literary prowess, his funeral was primarily filled with jazz and blues music.
The poet’s ashes were placed beneath the entrance of Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Hughes’ house, situated on East 127th Street, was recognized, achieving the New York City Landmark status in 1981.
The home was also added to the National Register of Places in 1982.
Hughes has significantly influenced African-Americans in the literary space, as well as American poets of all races, throughout the decades.
His work continues to be published and translated into many languages across the globe.