Hughes, Langston (1902-1967)

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Hughes, Langston (1902-1967)

With his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), writer Langston Hughes helped to define the spirit that motivated the Harlem Renaissance, a black cultural movement of the 1920s. In the essay, he argues against blacks seeking integration at the expense of race pride and proclaims that instead "we younger artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," a bold statement for those racially unsettling times that were marked by lynchings and riots. Perhaps his determination to affirm, indeed revel in, black culture had something to do with his father's hatred of black people, a sentiment that affected the son profoundly. Hughes wrote in his autobiography The Big Sea (1940) that "my father hated Negroes. I think he hated himself, too, for being a Negro." Unlike his father, early in life Hughes had been seduced by the joie de vivre of a people who simply could have been bitter because their lives were filled with injustice. In nearly everything he wrote, and he wrote more than fifty books in every conceivable genre, he sought to capture the complexities of, and pay homage to such people, especially those who were poor or of modest means. He believed that they "had as much in their lives to put into books as did those more fortunate." Thus, the black folk idiom, the rhythm and tones of its language and music, was the only choice for Hughes, and he became the poet laureate of the people for one simple reason—he spoke their language.

Hughes himself had very humble beginnings, and it may well have been his memory of those beginnings that fed his desire to be in touch with the masses. He was born James Langston Hughes on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, who separated soon after his birth. He lived on and off with his mother, but primarily lived with his grandmother for the first twelve years of his life. After his grandmother's death, he lived with friends of hers whom he referred to as Auntie and Uncle Reed, then went to live again with his mother, who had remarried and given birth to another son. In the loneliness of such a childhood, Hughes turned to books. Even living as modestly, often quite poorly, as they did, his mother took him to see plays and introduced him to literature. His grandmother had been a great storyteller, and although her staunch pride sometimes prevented their having enough to eat, the stories she told about heroic blacks seemed to instill a similar pride in Hughes that would later manifest itself in his deep affection for his people and in the stories he eventually would tell.

His early poems were in imitation of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg until he began to find his own voice, drawing on his observations of the people and culture that so fascinated him. For example, the inspiration for "When Sue Wears Red," extolling the majestic beauty of African American women, was a "little brownskin girl" from the South whom he had met at a high school dance. At age seventeen, he wrote one of his best-loved and most enduring poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," published in Crisis in 1921, the first of his poems to appear in a national publication. It was later set to music by composer Howard Swanson, and Marian Anderson performed it at Carnegie Hall. His collection of blues and jazz poems, The Weary Blues (1926), was an unprecedented use of those particular cultural forms, winning him first prize in Opportunity magazine's literary contest and establishing him as an influential writer whose art was deeply rooted in racial pride. Hughes's biographer, Arnold Rampersad, commented that poems such as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," "Mother to Son," and "Harlem" are "virtual anthems of black America."

Hughes's participation in the Harlem Renaissance, major though it was, constitutes only a small part of his literary career. His influence has been far-reaching, extending beyond the black American community. His appointment by President Lyndon Johnson as the American representative to the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Dakar, Senegal, in April of 1966, attests to his having achieved a widespread international reputation. Senegal's poet-president Léopold Sédar Senghor considered Hughes important to the concept of négritude, saying that "we considered Langston to be the greatest black American poet because it was Langston Hughes who best answered our definition," according to Rampersad in The Life of Langston Hughes. Senghor believed Hughes to be a "model … for the world." Also, according to Rampersad, the New York Times reported that while Hughes was attending the festival "young writers from all over Africa followed him about the city and haunted his hotel the way American youngsters dog favorite baseball players."

The impact of Hughes's work did not diminish with his death in 1967. Many scholars have come to see him as black America's most original poet; long before the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, Hughes's poetry reflected the idea that black music is essential to the artistic creation of an authentic "black" voice. Further, the kind of fusion of black music and literary forms that has come to be associated with his poetry is reflected in much of the black popular music of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. His poem "Afro-American Fragments" inspired the title of a music CD made in 1995 by Ensemble Sans Frontiére, which pays tribute to Hughes and musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis. Perhaps the blues revival of the 1980s and Congress's resolution declaring jazz a "rare and valuable national treasure" has helped to secure Hughes's acceptance by mainstream literary audiences, for he is the only African American to be included in the "Voices and Visions" series that explores the lives and works of thirteen famous American poets.

The last line of The Big Sea reads, "Literature is a big sea full of many fish. I let down my nets and pulled. I'm still pulling." One has only to look at his legacy of poetry, drama, musicals, libretti, fiction, and nonfiction to know that even now the poet of the people is "still pulling."

—Jacquelyn Y. McLendon

Further Reading:

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York, Hill and Wang, 1940.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vols. I, II. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold, and David Roessel, eds. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York, Vintage Classics, 1995.