Langston Hughes

With the advent of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, this world of American poetry was shaken to its foundations.  Strong black voices broke out over the country.  But one voice rose higher among the rest.  This was the voice of Langston Hughes, an American poet.

Langston Hughes was born into a family of abolitionists in Joplin, Missouri.  He also lived in Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio.  When he began writing poetry he was in high school, and elected “Class Poet.”  After high school, Hughes went on to Columbia University to study engineering, but soon dropped out to pursue his first love—poetry.  Soon after he published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) magazine, Crisis.

In 1923, Hughes traveled abroad on a freighter to the Senegal, Nigeria, the Cameroons, Belgium Congo, Angola, and Guinea in Africa, later to Italy, and France, Russia, and Spain. In Hughes’ poetry, he uses the rhythms of African American music, particularly blues and jazz. This sets his poetry apart from that of other writers, and it allowed him to experiment with a very rhythmic free verse.  A new style of writing emerged from these experiences along with a new series of poems including “The Weary Blues.”  During this period of time, also known as the Harlem Renaissance, many of his works were published and his writing flourished.  In 1925, he moved to Washington D.C. to listen to more jazz and blues at the bars.  He once remarked “blues had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going.”  He took on a job with Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926.  Later in the same year, Hughes returned to Harlem.

In 1930, he published his first novel Not Without Laughter.  Hughes wrote the successful Broadway drama Mulatto, in 1935 .  Hughes also wrote many short stories, plays, novels, and children‘s books.  He soon visited the Soviet Union, where he got to learn more about socialism.

During World War II, he took on a job writing for the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper.  He wrote jingles to encourage the purchase of war bonds.  A fictional voice emerged from these columns, that of Jesse B. Semple, better known as “Simple.” While the character first appeared as a Harlem everyman who needed encouragement to support the racially segregated U.S. armed forces, Simple evolved into a popular fictional character.  Later, Simple was published into books.

His integrity meant more to him than any luxuries his wealth could provide, thus, as with the break from his father in Mexico, Hughes abandoned financial security in search of his own goals.  While he managed to support himself as a writer, he was never financially secure.  His dream to purchase a house in Harlem finally came true in 1947,  by writing the lyrics to the music in the Broadway musical “Street Scene.”

During the 1950’s, his politics had caused him unwanted attention.  Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading a crusade against supposed Communist sympathizers in America, and pointed a finger at Hughes for his trips to the Soviet Union.  Hughes endured several years of attacks and boycotts when McCarthy accused his radical verse to be suspicious.  Hughes salvaged his image as a loyal American citizen by insisting that the pro-Communist works he had published no longer represented his thinking.  He brought Hughes to Washington D.C. and forced him to testify officially about it.  Despite the embarrassment, Hughes still remained popular.  “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” is referred to one of his best volumes of poetry, which was published in 1951.  His character Simple had evolved into a musical version, Simply Heaven, which ran on Broadway in 1957.

From the period of 1926 through 1967, Hughes wrote over fifty texts.  Hughes was deemed the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race,” a title he encouraged.  He meant to represent the race in his writing and he was one of the most original of all African American poets.  Hughes’s death on May 22, 1967, apparently resulted from infection following prostate surgery and two weeks of treatment at the New York Polyclinic Hospital. He also found himself increasingly rejected by young black militants at home as the civil rights movement lurched toward Black Power. His last book was the volume of verse, The Panther and the Lash, mainly about civil rights, was published after his death.

More than 20 years later, on the eighty-ninth anniversary of Hughes’s birth, in 1991, his cremated remains were buried beneath the commemoratively designed “I’ve Known Rivers” tile floor in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.  In many ways Hughes always remained loyal to the principles he had laid down for the younger black writers in 1926.  In the variety of his works, he is assuredly the most representative and respected of African American writers.


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