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Hughes, Langston 1902–1967

Langston Hughes 19021967

Author

At a Glance

The Impact of the Early Years

Poet and World Traveler

Conducted Reading Tour of the South

Began Simple Columns

Chronicled Black History

Selected writings

Sources

A pioneer of modern black literature, Langston Hughes devoted his lengthy and diverse writing career to revealing the attitudes, experiences, and language of everyday black Americans. Famous for such acclaimed poems as The Negro Speaks of Rivers and Harlem, Hughes was also the author of the much-admired Jesse B. Semple stories, as well as plays, song lyrics, childrens books, essays, a novel, and two autobiographies. Dubbed the Negro Poet Laureate and the Poet Laureate of Harlem, he focused on the lives of urban blacks and was especially known for his sardonic and witty depictions of racism in the United States. Hughes rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and was one of the first black writers to infuse his work with colloquial language as well as the structures and rhythms of blues and jazz music. Hughess greatest value noted George E. Kent in Langston Hughes, is in the range of notes that he was able to play regarding the souls and strivings of black folks.... His gift was also to catch the shifting tones of the times and to sense the continuity of old things among the new. Thus he always seems current with the newer forces that arise with each decade.

While Hughes is regarded as one of the most influential of modern black writers, his work has been disparagedby black and white critics alikeas lacking in depth and for depicting themes and characters considered low-brow. In his famous essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, published in the Nation in 1926, Hughes stated that his poetry was concerned with the commonfolk, the people who inhabited Chicagos South State Street or Harlems Lennox Avenue, people who have their hip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. Hughes related his art to an intense pride and delight in his race: We younger Negroes who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear of shame....... We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.

The circumstances of Hughess life profoundly influenced his career as a writer. As Christopher Hitchens wrote in the Observer, Not only was he born black in the era of Jim Crow, but he was born to a family that was extremely conscious of its responsibilities to The Race. Hughes was descended from a prominent black family that included

At a Glance

Born James Mercer Langston Hughes, February 1, 1902, in Joplin, MO; died of congestive heart failure, May 22, 1967, in New York City; son of James Nathaniel (a businessman, lawyer, and rancher) and Carrie Mercer Hughes (a teacher; maiden name, Langston). Education: Attended Columbia University, 1921-22; Lincoln University, A.B., 1929.

Author of poetry, long and short fiction, plays, nonfiction, and autobiography. In early years, worked as assistant cook, launderer, busboy, and at other odd jobs; worked as seaman on voyages to Africa and Europe; lived at various times in Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. Madrid correspondent for Baltimore Afro-American, 1937; visiting professor in creative writing, Atlanta University, 1947; poet-in-residence, Laboratory School, University of Chicago, 1949.

Member: Authors Guild; Dramatists Guild; American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); PEN; National Institute of Arts and Letters; Omega Psi Phi.

Awards: First prize for poetry, Opportunity magazine, 1925; first prize for poetry, Witter Bynner undergraduate contests, Lincoln University, 1926; Amy Spingarn Award, Crisis; Intercollegiate Poetry Award, Palms magazine, 1927; Harmon Gold Medal for literature, 1931; Guggenheim fellowship, 1935; Rosenwald fellowship, 1941; Litt.D., Lincoln University, 1943; American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, 1947; Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1954; NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1960.

his grandmothers first husband, Charles Howard Langston, who was killed in John Browns 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry, and Hughess great uncle John Mercer Langston, a noted abolitionist who became the first black to serve in the U.S. Congress. His grandmother Mary Langston, who in 1910 was honored by President Theodore Roosevelt as the last surviving widow of the Harpers Ferry insurgents, regularly told the young Langston accounts of his family history, giving her grandson many early examples of their resilience and determination. As Hughes recounted in his autobiography The Big Sea, Through my grandmothers stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody cried in my grandmothers stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought.... Something about my grandmothers stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything.

The Impact of the Early Years

Hughess early life was equally influenced, however, by disruption and restlessness. His father, James Hughes, who studied as a lawyer but was denied permission to an all-white examining board in Oklahoma, left his family and the United States to settle eventually in Mexico, where he became a wealthy businessman. Hughess parents divorced soon thereafter, and his mother, Carrie, traveled from city to city in search of better-paying work. As a result, Hughes was raised mainly by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, yet variously lived with or visited his mother in Kansas City, Topeka, Colorado Springs, Mexico, and other locations. For two years after his grandmothers death in 1912, he lived with a family in Lawrence named the Reeds, who introduced him to black spirituals. In 1914 his mother remarried and settled in Lincoln, Illinois; Hughes joined her and attended grammar school there.

In 1916, Hughes followed his mother and stepfather to Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school, some of the time living on his own in a rooming house. His high school was attended by many recent European immigrants, whom Hughes found to be much friendlier than more established American whites. Through his schoolmates and their families, many of whom were sympathetic to the socialist cause, Hughes was introduced to leftist literature and ideology. He became an active reader and was especially influenced by The Souls of Black Folk, a classic book on racism by W. E. B. Du Bois. Encouraged by a favorite English teacher, Hughes also began studying the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Friedrich Nietzsche, Theodore Dreiser, and other writers. He emulated Dunbars dialect poems as well as Sandburgs free verse, and published poems in his schools literary magazine.

In 1920 Hughes visited his father in Mexico, coming face-to-face for the first time with the intense racism of his father, who considered blacks, Indians, and Mexicans as inferior people. Furthermore, his father insisted that Langston would amount to something worthwhile only if he abandoned his dreams of becoming a writer and pursued a practical occupation, such as bookkeeping. Frustrated and depressed, Hughes estranged himself from his fathera rift that was never mended. On the return trip, as Hughes rode a train over the Mississippi River, he began to jot down the lines that would become his most famous poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. In the poem, Hughes relates the struggle of black people to the history of rivers from the Nile and the raising of the pyramids to the slave trade conducted down the mighty Mississippi. Ive known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers, the poem states, My soul has grown deep like the rivers. The poem was published in W. E. B. Du Boiss influential black magazine the Crisis and gained the seventeen-year-old Hughes recognition as a gifted, lyrical poet.

Poet and World Traveler

In the early 1920s Hughes devoted more and more time to his writing, and began what would become a lifelong fascination with travel. After teaching English for a year in Mexico, he moved to New York City and enrolled in Columbia University. There he spent as much time as possible among Harlems flourishing literary and musical circles and supported himself through a series of odd jobs that included work as a clerk, busboy, flower salesman, and deck hand. After dropping out of Columbia in 1922, he traveled to West Africa aboard a merchant freighter and, as he would later recount in his autobiography The Big Sea, tossed his most precious books into the ocean as an act of releasing himself from his past. Later the same year he traveled to the Netherlands; on a second trip to Europe in 1924, he decided to live in Paris. There Hughes continued to write poems and fiction and became well-versed in the music of many blues and jazz artists who had become famous overseas. During this period, a number of his poems were published in a special Harlem issue of Survey Graphic magazine.

The following year, Hughes returned to the United States to help support his mother, who was living in Washington, D.C. His writing during this period demonstrated the influence of spirituals and the blues. Hughes made numerous trips to Harlem, where he became acquainted with such prominent literary figures as Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and Ama Bontemps. His career gained an unexpected boost in 1925 while he was working as a busboy at a Washington hotel. Dining at the hotel was the poet Vachel Lindsay, to whom Hughes discreetly gave three of his poems. Lindsay, impressed with the poems, announced that he had discovered the Negro Busboy Poet, and the following day Hughes received nationwide publicity. Hughes went on to write many poems in 1925 and 1926, eventually receiving the Amy Spingarn poetry award from the Crisis. During this time, he also enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he would earn his bachelors degree in 1929. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred Knopf in 1926, and while some critics derided Hughes as lacking sophistication, others praised him as a true spokesman for the common people. Reviewer Du Bose Heyward of the New York Herald Tribune wrote that Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life. Always intensely subjective, passionate, keenly sensitive to beauty and possessed of an unfaltering musical sense, Langston Hughes has given us a first book that marks the opening of a career well worth watching.

During the rest of the 1920s, Hughes established himself as a writer in the black folk tradition. In 1926 he met folklorist Zora Neale Hurston and the next year accompanied her on a car trip through the South collecting black folklore. (Later the two collaborated on the play Mule Bone, which was not published or produced until 1991, due to a falling-out between the authors.) His second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927 and received mixed reviews, especially from black critics who felt that Hughess concentration on the black lower classes ran contrary to the goal of racial integration.

In the spring of 1927, Hughes met a wealthy white woman, Charlotte Mason, who became his literary patron and provided him with a steady income while he worked on his first novel, Not without Laughter. Hughes eventually broke off his relationship with Mason as the two began to differ on the subject matter of his writing. Mason was unhappy with the tone of open protest in some of Hughess poems, including Advertisement for the Waldorf Astoria, which condemned the fact that blacks were allowed to work at the famous New York hotel but could not be admitted as guests.

Conducted Reading Tour of the South

During the 1930s, Hughes further established himself as a poet of the people. In 1931, at the urging of black educator Mary McLeod Bethune and with a $1000 grant from the Rosenwald Foundation, he began a reading tour of the American South. Hughess speaking engagements were very popular, and his stature as a writer grew tremendously among black audiences. His concern with the common people and the plight of workers also took him to the Soviet Union, which he visited in 1932 as part of a 23-member black moviemaking group. The group eventually disbanded, and Hughes traveled alone in Central Asia, writing articles for Moscow newspapers. He later traveled to China, Korea, and Japan and was detained and questioned in Tokyo as a suspected Communist spy. During this period, Hughes published more radical and leftist verse, including The Dream Keeper and Other Poems and Scottsboro Limited.

Upon returning to the United States in 1933, Hughes was invited to live rent-free for a year at the cottage of Noel Sullivan in Carmel, California. He wrote prolifically, turning out at least one story or article every week. Many were sold to such periodicals as Scribners, the New Yorker, and Harpers, and Hughes used most of the money to help support his ailing mother. Around the same time, he also completed a book of short stories entitled The Ways of White Folks, whose themes ranged from romantic tales set in Africa to satirical pieces that portrayed disillusionment with white literary patronage. After leaving California, Hughes traveled again to Mexico, where he earned a living tutoring and translating works from Spanish into English. In 1935 he received a Guggenheim fellowship, and later that year he collaborated with future Fisk University librarian and writer Arna Bontemps on a childrens book. Two years later Hughes traveled to Spain and, together with Cuban protest poet Nicolas Guillen, was a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American covering the Spanish Civil War. The following year he joined Theodore Dreiser as a U.S. representative at the International Congress of Writers for the Defense of Culture.

Also during the middle and late 1930s, Hughes began to see many of his plays produced, including Mulatto, which focuses on the conflict between a mulatto son and his white father. Mulatto ran on Broadway for over a yeara record at the time for a play by a black authorand initiated a prolific playwriting period for Hughes. From 1935 through the 1940s, Hughes wrote seven plays, as well as librettos for musicals that included Street Scene, which had a score by German composer Kurt Weill. Many of Hughess plays were staged by the Gilpin Players in Cleveland, and Hughes founded three theater companies of his own: the Harlem Suitcase Theater in New York, the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago.

Began Simple Columns

During the 1940s Hughes was firmly established as a leading black poet, fiction writer, and playwright. In 1943 he began writing the short fiction for which he would become most famous, the Simple tales, which first began appearing in 1943 as a regular column in the Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper. Jesse B. Semple (Simple) is a poor man who lives in Harlem, a kind of comic no-good, who tells his stories to the narrator, who serves as Simples foil. Simples tales of his troubles with work, women, money, and life in general often humorously reveal the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. White folks, Simple reasons, is the cause of a lot of inconvenience in my life. The stories, which became very popular, were collected in the volumes Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Takes a Wife, Simple Stakes a Claim, and The Best of Simple.

Hughess other accomplishments during the 1940s included translating works by Nicolas Guillen and Haitian writer Jacques Romain (he had traveled to Haiti and Cuba as well), and coediting (with Bontemps) the influential anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. He was honored with an American Academy of Arts and Letters grant and served as visiting professor at Atlanta University and as poet-in-residence at the University of Chicago. Hughess poetry during this period, influenced by his return to Harlem in 1942, included Shakespeare in Harlem and Fields of Wonder, both of which explore the effects of the Great Depression on the lives of the residents of Harlem. Another book of poetry, One-Way Ticket, displays Hughess growing criticism of the treatment of blacks in the United States following World War II.

Chronicled Black History

The 1950s, according to James A. Emanuel in Langston Hughes, excelled other decades in Hughess career in the number and variety of books produced. In 1951 his first book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred, was published; it portrays the deterioration of Harlem from the prosperity and cultural renaissance of the 1920s to the widespread poverty, drugs, and crime of the 1950s. While Hughes continued to publish plays, fiction, translations, and nonfiction in the 1950s, including a second autobiographical volume, I Wonder as I Wander, most of his writings concerned black history. The Sweet Flypaper of Life and A Pictorial History of the Negro in America were groundbreaking depictions of blacks in American history, from the arrival of slaves during the colonial period to the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s. Hughes also wrote a number of books on history and black biography for younger readers, including Famous Negro Heroes of America, which treated such historical figures as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. In addition, he coedited (with Bontemps) The Book of Negro Folklore, which is considered an important collection of black folk material. His varied accomplishments as a writer were reflected in the 1958 book A Langston Hughes Reader, which brought together selections of his fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

During the 1960s Hughess poetry reflected the racial turbulence of the times. Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz contained poems intended for musical accompaniment and offered biting scenarios for resolving racial segregationsuch as a South where Martin Luther King, Jr., served as governor of Georgia and Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who defied federal orders to desegregate schools, was rendered a mammy in charge of a group of black children. These later poems are generally viewed as piercing variations on Hughess career-long themes of humanism, acceptance, tolerance, and integration.

Hughes died of congestive heart failure in 1967. His last book of verse, The Panther and the Lash, was published posthumously. This work contains such protest poems as Black Panther and The Backlash Blues, as well as poems that explore the independence of African countries.

Hughes is considered one of Americas most enduring black authors. In Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, David Littlejohn wrote that Hughes is the one sure Negro classic, more certain of permanence than even [James] Baldwin or [Ralph] Ellison or [Richard] Wright.... By modeling his verse always on the sounds of Negro talk, the rhythms of Negro music, by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poeticsense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own.

Selected writings

Poetry

The Weary Blues, Knopf, 1926.

Fine Clothes to the Jew, Knopf, 1927.

The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, Golden Stair, 1931.

Dear Lovely Death, Troutbeck, 1931.

The Dream Keeper and Other poems, Knopf, 1932.

Scottsboro Limited, Golden Stair, 1932.

(With Robert Glenn) Shakespeare in Harlem, Knopf, 1942.

Jim Crows Last Stand Negro Publication Society of America, 1943.

Freedoms Plow, Musette, 1943.

Lament for Dark Peoples and Other Poems, Holland, 1944.

Fields of Wonder, Knopf, 1961.

One-Way Ticket Knopf, 1949.

Montage of a Dream Deferred, Holt, 1951.

Selected Poems, Knopf, 1959.

Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, Knopf, 1961.

The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, Knopf, 1967.

Fiction

Not without Laughter (novel), Knopf, 1930.

The Ways of White Folks (stories), Knopf, 1934.

Simple Speaks His Mind (stories), Simon and Schuster, 1950.

Laughing to Keep from Crying (stories), Holt, 1952.

Simple Takes a Wife (stories), Simon and Schuster, 1953.

Simple Stakes a Claim (stories), Rinehart, 1957.

Tambourines to Glory (novel), John Day, 1958.

The Best of Simple (stories), Hill and Wang, 1961.

Something in Common and Other Stories, Hill and Wang, 1963.

Simples Uncle Sam (stories), Hill and Wang, 1965.

Plays

Mulatto, New York City, 1935.

Little Ham, Cleveland, 1936.

Soul Gone Home, Cleveland, 1937.

Dont You Want to Be Free?, New York City, 1938.

(Lyricist) Street Scene (book by Elmer Rice; music by Kurt Weill), New York City, 1947.

Simply Heavenly, New York City, 1957.

Black Nativity, New York City, 1961.

Tambourines to Glory, New York City, 1963.

Five Plays by Langston Hughes, Indiana University Press, 1963.

The Prodigal Son, New York City, 1965.

(With Zora Neale Hurston) Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, written in 1930, first produced and published in 1991.

Nonfiction

The Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia, Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the USSR, 1934.

The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940.

(Editor with Arna Bontemps) The Poetry of the Negro: 1746-1949, Doubleday, 1949.

(With Roy De Carava) The Sweet Flypaper of Life, Simon and Schuster, 1955.

(With Milton Meltzer) A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, Crown 1956, 4th edition published as A Pictorial History of Black Americans, 1973.

I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, Rinehart, 1956.

(Editor with Bontemps) The Book of Negro Folklore, Dodd, 1958.

Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP, Norton, 1962.

(With Meltzer) Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment, Prentice-Hall, 1967.

Black Misery, Paul S. Erickson, 1969.

Childrens books

The First Book of Negroes, F. Watts, 1952.

The First Book of Rhythms, F. Watts, 1954.

Famous American Negroes, Dodd, 1954.

Famous Negro Music Makers, Dodd, 1955.

The First Book of Jazz, F. Watts, 1955, revised edition, 1976.

The First Book of the West Indies, F. Watts, 1956.

Famous Negro Heroes of America, Dodd, 1958.

The First Book of Africa, F. Watts, 1960, revised edition, 1964.

Sources

Books

Berry, Faith, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Citadel, 1992.

Bloom, Harold, editor, Langston Hughes, Chelsea House, 1989.

Bruck, Peter, editor, The Black American Short Story in the 20th Century: A Collection of Critical Essays, Grüner Publishing Co., 1977.

Davis, Arthur p., From the Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers, 1900-1960, Howard University Press, 1974.

Dickinson, Donald C., A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967, Archon Books, 1967.

Emanuel, James A., Langston Hughes, Twayne, 1967.

Hughes, Langston, The Big Sea: An Autobiography, Knopf, 1940.

Hughes, Langston, I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey, Rinehart, 1956.

Littlejohn, David, Black on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes, Viking, 1966.

Meltzer, Milton, Langston Hughes: A Biography, Crowell, 1968.

ODaniel, Therman B., editor, Langston Hughes: Black GeniusA Critical Evaluation, Morrow, 1971.

Poetry Criticism, Volume 1, Gale, 1991.

Rampersad, Arnold, The Life of Langston Hughes, Oxford University Press, Volume 1, 1902-1941: I, Too, Sing America, 1986, Volume 2, 1941-1967: I Dream a World, 1988.

Short Story Criticism, Volume 6, Gale, 1990.

Periodicals

Essence, February 1992.

Mirabella, March 1991.

Nation, June 23, 1926; July 3, 1967.

Negro American Literature Forum, Winter 1971.

New York Herald Tribune, August 1, 1926.

Observer, January 18, 1987.

Phylon, Spring 1954.

Southwest Review, Winter 1969.

Michael E. Mueller

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Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes

Born: February 1, 1902
Joplin, Missouri
Died: May 22, 1967
New York, New York

African American poet and playwright

American author Langston Hughes, a moving spirit in the artistic movement of the 1920s often called the Harlem Renaissance, expressed the mind and spirit of most African Americans for nearly half a century.

Early life

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to Carrie M. Langston and James N. Hughes. His parents separated soon after his birth, and Hughes was raised mainly by his mother, his grandmother, and a childless couple, the Reeds. He attended public schools in Kansas and Illinois and upon graduating elementary school, Hughes was named class poet, although he had never even written a poem. That title sparked an interest in writing poetry.

Hughes graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920. His high school companions, most of whom were white, remembered him as a handsome "Indian-looking" youth whom everyone liked and respected for his quiet, natural ways and his abilities. He won an athletic letter in track and held offices in the student council and the American Civic Association.

In high school Hughes was introduced to the works of poet Carl Sandburg (18781967), another poet from the Midwest. Also at this time, Hughes himself began writing poetry and developing his unique style. He began submitting his work to magazines, but all were rejected.

A career begins

Hughes spent the year after high school in Mexico with his father, who tried to discourage him from writing. But Hughes's poetry and prose (writings) were beginning to appear in the Brownie's Book, a publication for children edited by W. E. B. Du Bois (18681963), and he was starting work on more ambitious material for adult readers. The poem "A Negro Speaks of River," which marked this development, appeared in the Crisis magazine in 1921.

Hughes returned to America and enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. Meanwhile, the Crisis printed several more of his poems. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia unfriendly, Hughes left after a year. He took on odd jobs in New York, and in 1923 he signed on to work on a freighter (a large ship). His first voyage took him down the west coast of Africa; his second took him to Spain. In 1924 he spent six months in Paris, France. He was relatively happy, produced some prose, and experimented with what he called "racial rhythms" in poetry. Most of this verse (poetry) appeared in African American publications, but Vanity Fair, a magazine popular among middle-and upper-class women, published three poems.

Later in 1924 Hughes went to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. He hoped to earn enough money to return to college, but work as a hotel busboy paid very little, and life in the nation's capital, where racial tensions were fierce, made him unhappy. But he was able to write many poems. "The Weary Blues" won first prize in 1925 in a literary competition sponsored by Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. That summer one of his essays and another poem won prizes in the Crisis literary contest. Meanwhile, Hughes had come to the attention of Carl Van Vechten, a novelist and critic, who arranged publication of Hughes's first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

This book projected Hughes's lasting themes, established his style, and suggested the wide range of his poetic talent. It showed him committed to racial themespride in blackness and in his African heritage, and the everyday life of African Americansand democracy (government ruled by the people) and patriotism (the support of one's country). Hughes transformed the bitterness which such themes generated in many African Americans of the day into sharp irony and humor. His casual, folklike style was strengthened in his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

A literary success

Hughes had resumed his education in 1925 and graduated from Lincoln University in 1929. Not without Laughter (1930) was his first novel. The story portrays an African American boy, Sandy, caught between two worlds and two attitudes. The boy's hardworking and respectable mother provides a counterpoint to his energetic, easygoing, footloose father. The mother is oriented to the middle-class values of the white world; the father believes that fun and laughter are the only things worth pursuing. Though the boy's character is blurred, Hughes's attention to the details of African American culture in America gives the novel insight and power.

The relative commercial success of Not without Laughter inspired Hughes to make his living as an author. In 1931 he made the first of what became annual lecture tours. The following year he took a trip to the Soviet Union, the former country that today consists of Russia and other smaller nations. Meanwhile, he turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five books of African American writing and worked with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children. He wrote some twenty plays, including "Mulatto," "Simply Heavenly," and "Tambourines to Glory." He translated Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral (18891957), the Latin American Nobel laureate poet, and wrote two long autobiographical works (a biography about oneself).

As a newspaper columnist for the Chicago Defender, Hughes created "Simple." This enduring character brought his style to perfection and solidified his reputation as the "most eloquent [fluent and persuasive] spokesman" for African Americans. The sketches of Simple, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Semple (Simple), and an educated but less sensitive African American friend. The sketches that ran in the Defender for twenty-five years are varied in subject and remarkable in their relevance to the universal human condition. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.

Hughes received numerous fellowships (scholarships), awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities; had his plays produced on four continents; and made recordings of African American history, music commentary, and his own poetry. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.

For More Information

Cooper, Floyd. Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes. New York: Philomel Books, 1994.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940. Reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Hughes, Langston. I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. New York: Rinehart, 1956. Reprint, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993.

Meltzer, Milton. Langston Hughes: A Biography. New York: Crowell, 1968.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Walker, Alice. Langston Hughes, American Poet. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.

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Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

American author Langston Hughes (1902-1967), a moving spirit in the artistic ferment of the 1920s often called the Harlem Renaissance, expressed the mind and spirit of most African Americans for nearly half a century.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo., on Feb. 1, 1902. His parents soon separated, and Hughes was reared mainly by his mother, his maternal grandmother, and a childless couple named Reed. He attended public schools in Kansas and Illinois, graduating from high school in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920. His high school companions, most of whom were white, remembered him as a handsome "Indian-looking" youth whom everyone liked and respected for his quiet, natural ways and his abilities. He won an athletic letter in track and held offices in the student council and the American Civic Association. In his senior year he was chosen class poet and yearbook editor.

Hughes spent the next year in Mexico with his father, who tried to discourage him from writing. But Hughes's poetry and prose were beginning to appear in the Brownie's Book, a publication for children edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, and he was starting work on more ambitious material dealing with adult realities. The poem "A Negro Speaks of River," which marked this development, appeared in the Crisis in 1921.

Hughes returned to America and enrolled at Columbia University; meanwhile, the Crisis printed several more of his poems. Finding the atmosphere at Columbia uncongenial, Hughes left after a year. He did odd jobs in New York. In 1923 he signed on as steward on a freighter. His first voyage took him down the west coast of Africa; his second took him to Spain. In 1924 he spent 6 months in Paris. He was relatively happy, produced some prose, and experimented with what he called "racial rhythms" in poetry. Most of this verse appeared in African American publications, but Vanity Fair, a magazine popular among middle-and upper-class women, published three poems.

Later in 1924 Hughes went to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. He hoped to earn enough money to return to college, but work as a hotel busboy paid very little, and life in the nation's capital, where class distinctions among African Americans were quite rigid, made him unhappy. He wrote many poems. "The Weary Blues" won first prize in 1925 in a literary competition sponsored by Opportunity, a magazine published by the National Urban League. That summer one of his essays and another poem won prizes in the Crisis literary contest. Meanwhile, Hughes had come to the attention of Carl Van Vechten, a white novelist and critic, who arranged publication of Hughes's first volume of verse, The Weary Blues (1926).

This book projected Hughes's enduring themes, established his style, and suggested the wide range of his poetic talent. It showed him committed to racial themes—pride in blackness and in his African heritage, the tragic mulatto, the everyday life of African Americans—and democracy and patriotism. Hughes transformed the bitterness which such themes generated in many of his African American contemporaries into sharp irony, gentle satire, and humor. His casual-seeming, folklike style, reflecting the simplicity and the earthy sincerity of his people, was strengthened in his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927).

Hughes had resumed his education in 1925 and graduated from Lincoln University in 1929. Not without Laughter (1930) was his first novel. The story deals with an African American boy, Sandy, caught between two worlds and two attitudes. The boy's hardworking, respectability-seeking mother provides a counterpoint to his high-spirited, easy-laughing, footloose father. The mother is oriented to the middle-class values of the white world; the father believes that fun and laughter are the only virtues worth pursuing. Though the boy's character is blurred, Hughes's attention to details that reveal African American culture in America gives the novel strength.

The relative commercial success of his novel inspired Hughes to try making his living as an author. In 1931 he made the first of what became annual lecture tours. He took a trip to Soviet Union the next year. Meanwhile, he turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five anthologies of African American writing and collaborated with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children. He wrote some 20 plays, including Mulatto, Simply Heavenly, and Tambourines to Glory. He translated Federico Garcia Lorca, the Spanish poet, and Gabriela Mistral, the Latin American Nobel laureate poet, and wrote two long autobiographical works.

As a newspaper columnist, Hughes created "Simple," probably his most enduring character, brought his style to perfection, and solidified his reputation as the "most eloquent spokesman" for African Americans. The Simple sketches, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Semple (Simple), and an educated but less sensitive African American acquaintance. The sketches, which ran in the Chicago Defender for 25 years, are too varied in subject, too relevant to the universal human condition, and too remarkable in their display of Hughes's best writing for any quick summary. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.

Hughes received numerous fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities; had his plays produced on four continents; and made recordings of African American history, music commentary, and his own poetry. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation unlike any other African American writer except Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.

Further Reading

The chief sources of biographical data are Hughes's autobiographical The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey (1956); Donald C. Dickinson, A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1902-1967 (1967); James A. Emanuel, Langston Hughes (1967); Milton Meltzer, Langston Hughes: A Biography (1968); and Charlemae H. Rollins, Black Troubadour: Langston Hughes (1970). Hughes gets extensive critical treatment in Saunders Redding, To Make a Poet Black (1939); Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948); John Milton Charles Hughes, The Negro Novelist, 1940-1950 (1953); and Robert A. Boone, The Negro Novel in America (1958). Historical background is provided by Benjamin O. Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States (1918); John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (1947; 3d ed. 1967); and Vernon Loggins, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (1959). □

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Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes (James Langston Hughes), 1902–67, American poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, b. Joplin, Mo., grad. Lincoln Univ., 1929. He worked at a variety of jobs and lived in several countries, including Mexico and France, before Vachel Lindsay discovered his poetry in 1925. The publication of The Weary Blues (1926), his first volume of poetry, enabled Hughes to attend Lincoln Univ. in Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1929. His writing, which often uses dialect and jazz rhythms, is largely concerned with depicting African American life, particularly the experience of the urban African American. Among his later collections of poetry are Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), One-Way Ticket (1949), and Selected Poems (1959). Hughes's numerous other works include several plays, notably Mulatto (1935); books for children, such as The First Book of Negroes (1952); and novels, including Not Without Laughter (1930). His newspaper sketches about Jesse B. Simple were collected in The Best of Simple (1961).

See his autobiographies, The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956); The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1995) and Selected Letters of Langston Hughes (2015), both ed. by A. Rampersad and D. Roessel; Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten (2001), ed. by E. Bernard; biography by A. Rampersad (2 vol., 1986–88); studies by O. Jemie (1985) and S. C. Tracy (1988).

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Hughes, Langston

Hughes, Langston (1902–67) US poet and leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance. His debut volume was The Weary Blues (1926). Hughes' distinctive musical style combined African-American dialect with the rhythms of jazz and blues. Ohter works include Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) and One-Way Ticket (1949).

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Hughes, Langston

HUGHES, Langston

HUGHES, Langston (b. 1 February 1902;d. 22 May 1967), writer.

James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, into a family whose ancestors boasted political notables, including a member of John Brown's antislavery party who fought and died with him at Harper's Ferry. Hughes's parents separated in 1903 when his father immigrated to Mexico. Hughes then moved with his mother to Kansas and later to Illinois and Ohio. He was elected class poet in grade school and graduated from high school with the same honor. Hughes published the first of his signature poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," in Crisis magazine in 1921, the same year he enrolled at Columbia University in New York.

The Big Sea (1940), the first of his two autobiographies, captures Hughes's excitement upon arriving in New York. In particular, Hughes was energized by the number of black people he saw uptown in Harlem and the thriving culture they were creating. Black intellectuals and artists in New York, like W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Fauset, and Countee Cullen, were familiar with the poetry Hughes had published in Crisis . They counted themselves, Hughes, and several others as the pioneers of a new black cultural movement, the Harlem Renaissance. Their mission was to harness the post–World War I buoyancy in American culture and channel it into the institutions established to enable black American political, social, and cultural progress. Black art was booming in New York, and also in Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, and Detroit. But no city could boast a talent more impressive than New York's Langston Hughes, who felt an allegiance to the city that he did not feel for Columbia. The combination of his father's unpredictable financial help and the coldness of the almost exclusively white student body resulted in Hughes dropping out after two semesters.

Hughes found a job on a freighter that took him to western Africa, Paris, and Italy. In 1925, while Hughes was in Washington, D.C., living with his mother, his poem "The Weary Blues" won first prize in a contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine, and earned him, through Carl Van Vechten, a book contract with the publisher Alfred A. Knopf. In January 1926, Hughes's first book, The Weary Blues , appeared. The same year, Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a historically black college, where he graduated in 1929. Through the Harlem Renaissance luminary Alain Locke, Hughes secured the support of Charlotte Osgood Mason, a wealthy white widow who both doted on Hughes and tried to control his creative output. Mason's support enabled Hughes to complete his first novel, Not without Laughter (1930), and to collaborate with Zora Neale Hurston on Mule Bone , a play they began about black folk culture in 1929. Hughes's relationships with Mason and Hurston were similarly intense and suffered dramatic breaks that distressed Hughes substantially.

Hughes's secrecy about his sexuality affected his relationships with women and men in multiple ways. Alain Locke's amorous desires for Hughes led Locke to Paris in 1924, where he was gently rebuffed by the poet, who was working there at the time. Several scholars speculate that Hurston's thwarted romantic expectations contributed to the deterioration of her friendship with Hughes, who never had a public, long-term, sexual relationship with a man or a woman. While his autobiographies describe various romantic interactions with women over the years, Hughes's allegiance to gay subcultures is clear. In The Big Sea , he describes the pleasure he took in the Hamilton Club Lodge Ball, a popular annual drag ball in Harlem, and in popular lesbian and bisexual performers, like Gladys Bentley and Bessie Smith. In his two-volume biography of Hughes, Arnold Rampersad describes the frustrating lack of evidence about Hughes's sexuality. Even though he concludes that Hughes was asexual, he points out that several of Hughes's contemporary associates attest to his homosexuality as an open secret during the Harlem Renaissance years and beyond. Other scholars definitively identify Hughes as gay. Certainly a persistent, popular appreciation of Hughes as a gay icon contributes to a larger debate about what qualifies as evidence when it comes to histories of marginalized peoples, whose unpopular or controversial identities and affinities may have been deliberately obscured.

Hughes's career suffered dramatically for his public affiliation with left-wing politics in the 1940s. Despite his denials and repudiations, Hughes was identified as a Communist and forced to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953. He was criticized by leftists for accommodating red-baiters, but by exonerating himself, Hughes was able to continue a productive and evolving life as a novelist, playwright, columnist, translator, librettist, and anthologer. In 1961, Hughes was inducted to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He died of cancer in New York City in 1967.

Bibliography

Bernard, Emily, ed. Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925–1964 . New York: Knopf, 2001.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea . New York: Knopf, 1940.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Emily Bernard

see alsobentley, gladys; cullen, countee; harlem renaissance; literature; locke, alain; thurman, wallace; van vechten, carl.

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Hughes, Langston

HUGHES, LANGSTON

Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902–May 22, 1967), poet, dramatist, fiction writer, journalist, and lyricist, was perhaps the most versatile of African-American writers and, especially as a poet, the most beloved. Born in Joplin, Missouri, he grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, and Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school from 1916 to 1920. In Kansas, his maternal grandmother, an ardent abolitionist whose first husband had died at Harpers Ferry in 1859 as a member of John Brown's band, taught Hughes to revere the cause of social justice. In high school, Hughes was further influenced by his classmates, many of whom were the children of immigrants from eastern Europe. His first books, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), were volumes of poetry that reflected both his lively social conscience and his commitment to the vernacular culture of black America, especially its music. A landmark essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (published in the June 23, 1926, issue of The Nation), in which Hughes called on younger blacks to be proud of their ethnic heritage even as they insisted on artistic freedom, helped establish him as a key figure of the flourishing Harlem Renaissance. By 1930, however, Hughes began to sense the coming economic disaster. "New York began to be not so pleasant that winter," he would write in his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea. "People were sleeping in subways or on newspapers in office doors, because they had no homes. And in every block a beggar appeared."

In 1931 and 1932 Hughes toured the South and the West by car, consciously trying to take his poetry to the people; he also publicly protested the treatment of the Scottsboro Boys. In 1932, he went to the Soviet Union to help make a film about race relations in the United States; when that venture collapsed, he stayed on for a year. About this time, Hughes, although never a Communist, wrote his most radical poems, including "Good Morning Revolution," "Goodbye Christ," and "One more 'S' in the U.S.A." (to make it Soviet). In 1933 and 1934, living in Carmel, California, he wrote the often bitter short stories that comprise The Ways of White Folks (1934). While there, he also worked on a play (never produced) about labor unrest in agricultural California. In 1935, his tragedy Mulatto opened on Broadway, but Hughes saw little of its profits because of the hostility of its producer, a white man. Disillusioned, he wrote "Let America Be America Again," a long poem intended as an anthem for the nation during the Depression.

In 1937, he spent three months in Spain as a war correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. Returning to America, he founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre. Its first production, Don't You Want to Be Free? (1938), was a loosely constructed play-with-music that culminates in a rousing call for the unity of black and white workers. That year, 1938, the Communist International Workers Order published A New Song, a collection of Hughes's radical poems. However, he soon angered the left by working on a Hollywood film, Way Down South (1939), that employed many movie stereotypes about black folk in Dixie. Although Hughes pleaded truthfully that he was destitute, certain critics lambasted him. A greater threat came from the right. In 1940, just before a gala book luncheon in California to mark the appearance of The Big Sea, supporters of an evangelist attacked in Hughes's "Goodbye Christ" forced its organizers to cancel the event. Retreating, Hughes issued a statement renouncing the poem. His role as a major literary commentator on the ills of capitalism in America was over, just as the Depression itself approached its end.

See Also: AFRICAN AMERICANS, IMPACT OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION ON; LITERATURE; WRIGHT, RICHARD.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 1: 1902–1941: I Too Sing America. 1986.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, Vol. 2: 1941–1967: I Dream A World. 1988.

Rampersad, Arnold, and David Roessel, eds. Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. 1994.

Arnold Rampersad

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Hughes, Langston

Langston Hughes

Born February 1, 1902

Joplin, Missouri

Died May 22, 1967

New York, New York


American poet, short story writer, novelist, playwright, autobiographer, and nonfiction writer




"[Let the] smug Negro middle class ... turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books to catch a glimmer of their own beauty."

Probably the most famous and celebrated of all African American poets, Langston Hughes had a career that spanned five decades. He produced a wide variety of literary works from novels, plays, and short stories to children's books, translations, and anthologies. But it is for his poetry—with its gripping, vivid images and plainspoken, jazz- and blues-influenced language—that he is most remembered. And the Harlem Renaissance, the period in which he began his career, simply would not have been the same without him.



A rootless childhood

Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was of mixed Native American, French, and African heritage, but his family was identified as black. His father, James Nathaniel Hughes, was born in Oklahoma but moved to Joplin in 1899; he had not been allowed to take the bar examination (the test that qualifies those who have studied law to become practicing attorneys) in his own state due to his race. Langston's mother, Carrie, who came from a distinguished and financially secure Kansas family, was an imaginative person who liked to write poetry and perform dramatic monologues.

In 1903, after four years of marriage and the births of two children (the first died; Langston was the second), frustrated by the poverty and racism he seemed unable to escape in the United States, James Hughes left his family and moved to Mexico. He established himself there as an attorney, bought land, and was able to send money back to his wife, but Carrie refused to join him. Instead, she traveled from city to city in search of jobs, sometimes taking young Langston with her and sometimes leaving him with her mother, Mary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. A gentle and proud woman who ran a boarding house for University of Kansas students, Mary exerted a strong and positive influence on her grandson.

Around 1907, during one of his sojourns with his mother, young Hughes entered a library for the first time and fell instantly in love with reading. In his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), he recalled, "[Even] before I was six, books began to happen to me, so that after a while there came a time when I believed in books more than people—which, of course, was wrong."



Already a poet

After the death of his grandmother in 1910, Hughes lived briefly with her friends, the Reed family. During this time he got his first job, cleaning the lobby and restrooms in an old hotel near his school. (Later in his life, he would write a poem called "Brass Spittoons" about this experience.) In 1914 he went to live with his mother and her new husband, Homer Clark, and his new stepbrother, Gwyn, in Lincoln, Illinois. The family stayed for one year and then moved to Cleveland, Ohio.

Hughes then entered Cleveland's Central High School, where he spent four successful years. He was on the school's track team, often made the monthly honor roll, and served as editor of the yearbook. He also began to write poetry and publish his work in the Belfrey Owl, a school publication. His style already showed the influence of the famous African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906; see Chapter 3) as well as white poets Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

Hughes had spent much of his early childhood on the move as his mother sought out work or left him in the care of others. In some of the schools he had attended he had been the only black student, and sometimes he had been ridiculed. But Hughes had a soft-spoken, agreeable nature and a handsome face; he had learned how to adapt himself to new situations, and people usually liked him. These qualities would continue to help him in adult life. But there was also a part of Hughes that he shared with no one, and even his closest friends found him a little mysterious.



High school and beyond

Between his junior and senior years of high school, Hughes spent an unhappy summer living with his father in Mexico. He found his father's outlook depressingly negative, and he was happy to return to the United States. Sometime during Hughes's senior year, he wrote a poem called "When Sue Wears Red," about a girl he had seen at a dance. Later, critics would praise this poem as the first by any poet to celebrate the beauty of a black woman. It was an early example of Hughes's distinctive and already confident voice.

The next summer Hughes produced a poem that was to become perhaps his most famous. In July 1920 he traveled by train to visit his father again in Mexico. While crossing the Mississippi River to St. Louis, Missouri, Hughes wrote fifteen lines on the back of an envelope. Finished in a quarter of an hour and dedicated to black leader W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963), this poem, titled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," tells in clear, plain language of the important and deeply spiritual role that rivers—including the Nile in Egypt, the Congo in Africa, and the Mississippi in the United States—have played in the lives of black people. When it was published a year later, the poem gained notice as a simple yet elegant expression of pride in the spirituality and endurance of black peoples throughout the world.

Having graduated from college, Hughes lived with his father for a year. They disagreed about what he should do next: James Hughes wanted his son to attend a European university to avoid the racism of the United States, but Hughes finally convinced him that he should go to Columbia University in New York City, where he promised to study engineering. Meanwhile, Hughes had sent samples of his writing to Jessie Fauset (1882–1961; see biographical entry), the literary editor of the prominent black publication Crisis (see Chapter 1). Two of his poems and a children's play were published in Brownies' Book, a magazine for young people produced by the staff of Crisis, and in June 1921 "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" appeared in Crisis. Thus, Hughes's reputation as a promising poet arrived in New York a little ahead of him.



" ... this rise of dreams and beauty"

Arrive he did, though, later in the summer of 1921, on a steam-driven ship he'd boarded in Mexico. In his autobiography Hughes describes the excitement of this arrival: "There is no thrill in all the world like entering, for the first time, New York harbor, coming in from the flat monotony of the sea to this rise of dreams and beauty." Deeply interested in the goings-on in Harlem, Hughes enrolled for the fall term at Columbia University. Although he managed to keep up acceptable grades, he spent more time attending Broadway shows—especially the wildly popular Shuffle Along (see Chapter 4), which he saw over and over again—than worrying about school. But Hughes did pursue his interest in literature and writing by attending lectures and poetry readings at the 135th Street branch of the New York Public Library. There he met another young poet named Countee Cullen (1903–1946; see biographical entry), who was to become a close friend and rival.

"The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes


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.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy

bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like rivers.


From Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, Vintage Books, 1990. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Reproduced by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a Division of Random House, Inc. In the British Commonwealth by Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.




After finals in the spring of 1922, Hughes dropped out of Columbia and began to spend all of his time in Harlem, taking odd jobs to support himself and writing some of the best poems of his career. During the winter of 1923, he produced "The Weary Blues," about a piano player in a Lenox Avenue nightclub who moans in the language of the blues about his loneliness and troubles but who finally seems to achieve peace through his own music. Written in a nontraditional form (despite Hughes's use of rhyme), this poem brilliantly captures the spirit of Harlem's nightlife and people as well as the strength and richness of African American culture. This was not the side of black life that Du Bois and his Talented Tenth (the most accomplished and ambitious segment of African American society) wanted writers to portray, but Hughes was committed—then and for the rest of his career—to celebrating the ordinary scenes and people around him.



A journey to Africa

In the spring of 1923, Hughes left New York for a period of sea travel, serving as a cook's assistant on a freighter that would take him to Africa for the first time. The ship docked in such cities as Dakar (Senegal) and Lagos (Nigeria), and the young writer exulted in reaching, as he wrote in his autobiography, "My Africa, Motherland of the Negro Peoples! And me a Negro! Africa! The real thing." By late 1923 Hughes was back in the United States, but he soon shipped out again on another freighter, only to resign from his job in Europe shortly thereafter. In the spring of 1924 he was living in Paris and working as a busboy in a nightclub where French music fans went to hear the exciting jazz that had been brought over from the United States by African Americans.

In Paris, Hughes received a visit from Alain Locke, who had read and admired Hughes's work in Crisis and asked him for some poems to include in the Survey Graphic issue on black writers (see Chapter 2) that Locke was then busy putting together. Hughes and Locke traveled to Venice, Italy, together, but after Hughes was robbed of his money and passport the two parted company. Hughes finally managed to get a job on a ship bound for the United States, and he arrived back in New York with twenty-five cents in his pocket and a sheaf of new poems. Soon after his arrival, he attended a benefit party for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where he met white writer-critic—and booster of African American culture—Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964; see biographical entry) for the first time. Van Vechten would later help Hughes get his first volume of poetry published. Another important relationship Hughes formed during this period was with poet Arna Bontemps (1902–1973). They shared a strong, lifelong friendship and worked on many projects together.



The Weary Blues is published

In 1925 Hughes won the top poetry prize for "The Weary Blues" in the annual contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine (see Chapter 2). At the awards dinner, he ran into Van Vechten, who asked him if he had enough poems to publish as a book; Hughes subsequently sent Van Vechten all of the poems he had ready for publication. Meanwhile, Hughes was living with his mother in Washington, D.C., and working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. One evening the famous white poet Vachel Lindsay (1879–1931), who was scheduled to give a poetry reading at the hotel later, went into the restaurant for dinner. Hughes left three of his poems near Lindsay's plate, and at the poetry reading that night Lindsay read Hughes's poems along with his own and announced that he had discovered a talented black busboy-poet. Lindsay told Hughes that he should keep writing and try to get his work into print.

Meanwhile, Van Vechten had already sent Hughes's poems to his own publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, who agreed to publish them in a volume to be titled The Weary Blues, with an introduction written by Van Vechten. Besides the title poem, the volume includes "Mother to Son," spoken in black dialect by a mother who encourages her son to continue struggling up the staircase of life; "Negro," a sorrowful but proud poem about all the roles (slave, worker, singer, etc.) that blacks have played in American life; and "Troubled Woman," whose central figure is bent and hurt but not crushed by adversity.

The Weary Blues, which appeared in 1926, received positive reviews from many major publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New Republic. It also received a few negative ones (most notably from London'sTimes Literary Supplement). Members of the conservative Talented Tenth found Hughes's gritty realism distasteful and bound to give whites the wrong impression about black people. But in Crisis, Jessie Fauset claimed that Hughes had written more "tenderly, understandingly, and humorously about life in Harlem" than any other poet. And Hughes defended his own aims—and the viewpoint of his fellow younger Harlem Renaissance writers—in an important essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," published in the Nation in June 1926. "Let the blare of Negro jazz bands and the bellowing voice of Bessie Smith singing blues," wrote Hughes, "penetrate the closed ears of the colored near intellectuals until they listen and perhaps understand . . . ." Let the "smug Negro middle class . . . turn from their white, respectable, ordinary books to catch a glimmer of their own beauty."



Living at "Niggerati Manor"

It was during this period that Hughes befriended the wealthy white Spingarn family, several members of which were active in supporting and promoting African American culture. Arthur Spingarn became Hughes's lawyer (which he would remain throughout the rest of Hughes's life) and Arthur's sister-in-law Amy offered to pay for his education. So in early 1926 Hughes entered Lincoln University, a black college located in Pennsylvania.

"Mother to Son" by Langston Hughes


Well, son, I'll tell you:

Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

It's had tacks in it,

And splinters,

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor—Bare.

But all the time

I'se been a-climbin' on,

And reachin' landin's,

And turnin' corners,

And sometimes goin' in the dark

Where there ain't been no light.

So, boy, don't you turn back.

Don't you set down on the steps

'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.

Don't you fall now—

For I'se still goin', honey,

I'se still climbin',

And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.


From "Mother to Son," in Collected Poems, by Langston Hughes. Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Reproduced in the U.S. and Canada by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Reproduced in the U.K. by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.




When classes let out that summer, he returned to New York and moved into a boarding house on 136th Street—dubbed "Niggerati Manor" by writer Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960; see biographical entry). The house was already occupied by his friend Wallace Thurman (1902–1934; see biographical entry) and others active in the Harlem Renaissance. Inspired by all the social and cultural electricity around him, Hughes plunged into activities such as producing the one-issue magazine Fire!! (along with Thurman, Hurston, painter Aaron Douglas, and other friends) and attending parties at the homes of black millionairess A'Lelia Walker and Carl Van Vechten. In the fall, he returned to his studies at Lincoln.



Another book of poetry, and a new "Godmother"

The next year Hughes's second volume of poems was published. Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) features even more details of everyday life in poor and working-class Harlem, with poems that speak not just of nightclub music but of storefront churches, low-paying jobs, gambling, fights, drinking, and prostitution. Again, Hughes writes in the language and rhythms of the streets, creating a style that seems plain and simple but is actually carefully crafted. He seems to strive for honesty above all else but also maintains his compassion for the subjects of his poems such as the speaker in "Mulatto," who has a black mother and an uncaring white father: "My old man died in a fine big house. / My ma died in a shack. / I wonder where I'm gonna die, / Being neither white nor black?" Like Hughes's first volume, this one was praised by many critics but faulted by those who claimed it painted an ugly picture of African American life.

Hughes was still a student at Lincoln when, on a weekend trip to New York, he met an elderly white woman named Charlotte Mason (1854–1946). He found this wealthy widow (who had recently become fascinated by black culture) charming, informed, delightfully modern in her outlook, and very appreciative of his work. She offered to support Hughes financially so that he could continue to write without having to worry about making money; meanwhile, she insisted on remaining anonymous and on being called only "Godmother". With Mason's support, Hughes was able to finish a novel, Not Without Laughter, which was written before his 1929 graduation from Lincoln and published in 1930.

Not Without Laughter

Hughes intended in Not Without Laughter to portray a typical black family in Kansas, where he had lived as a child, but he did not use his own family as a model. Whereas Hughes's grandmother had been the proprietor of a boarding house, the novel's Hager Williams (grandmother of young Sandy Williams) washes white people's clothes for a living. Hager's children include Anjee (Sandy's mother), who works as a maid while eagerly anticipating the visits of her rambling, guitar-playing husband Jimboy' Tempy, who is living what she considers a "respectable" middle-class life and avoids her family; and Harriett, a vibrant young woman who has dropped out of school to work as a waitress and who wants to become a blues singer. The novel recounts the various struggles and misadventures of the characters, especially Sandy's growing awareness of racism and his attempt to find his own place in the world. At the end of Not Without Laughter, Hager has died and Harriett, now a successful performer, promises to give Sandy money to finish his education.

At the time of its publication, Not Without Laughter received mixed reviews, and it is not now considered a very successful novel. Although Hughes created a rich, detailed portrait of African American family life and struggles, he failed to bring his themes to life, and the novel's central figure, Sandy, seemed to some critics more a symbol of racial progress than a well-developed character.

"Dream Variation" by Langston Hughes


To fling my arms wide

In some place of the sun,

To whirl and to dance

Till the white day is done.

Then rest at cool evening

Beneath a tall tree

While night comes on gently,

Dark like me—

That is my dream!

To fling my arms wide

In the face of the sun,

Dance! whirl! whirl!

Till the quick day is done.

Rest at pale evening....

A tall, slim tree....

Night coming tenderly

Black like me.


From "Dream Variation," in Collected Poems, by Langston Hughes. Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes. Reproduced in the U.S. and Canada by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Reproduced in the U.K. by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated.




Two painful breakups

By early 1930 Hughes had experienced many successes, but he would endure a time of pain and loss as two important relationships ended. Hughes had greatly admired Charlotte Mason and deeply appreciated her help; she had given him many opportunities—not only to work free from worries about money but to enrich himself culturally. Yet as time went by it became clear to Hughes that the two differed profoundly in their ideas, for Mason believed that black people provided America's link to the "primitive" and should produce only works that reflected this primitivism. Hughes felt too limited by this idea; he wanted to write according to his own interests and vision, not according to someone else's ideas about how or what he should write. Mason was very angry and hurt when Hughes told her that he valued her friendship but could no longer accept her money, and she refused to speak with him again. Hughes was apparently very upset about his break with Mason, even to the point of feeling physically ill. He found relief only after a period of travel and work on various other projects.

One of his earlier projects, however, would lead to the breakup of another friendship. Financed by Mason, Hughes had worked with Zora Neale Hurston on a play called Mule Bone, a comedy that was based on a folktale Hurston had collected during her travels in the South. The play was almost finished when Hughes and Hurston parted company, with Hughes supposedly planning to finish polishing the final act. Sometime later, though, Hughes learned that Hurston was promoting the play as her own creation. An attempt at reconciliation between the two friends failed, and they only rarely spoke to each other for the rest of their lives. Mule Bone would not be produced until 1991.



A tour of the South

After a period of travel in the southern United States and in Haiti, Hughes applied for a grant from the Rosenwald Foundation (a charitable organization that gave writers and other artists money for projects) so that he could go on a poetry-reading tour of black colleges throughout the South. He received a thousand-dollar grant and started on his trip in the fall of 1931. After successful appearances before enthusiastic audiences in North Carolina, Louisiana, Arkansas, and at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Hughes ended his tour in San Francisco, California, at the home of a wealthy white friend named Noel Sullivan.



Traveling through the Soviet Union

Like many young authors and intellectuals of his time, Hughes had become interested in socialism (a political system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are shared by the community or owned by the government) as a possible answer to social injustice. He was eager to experience firsthand the Communist (having an economic system that promotes the ownership of all property by the community as a whole) society that had been established in Russia since the 1917 revolution that had toppled that country's traditional czarist (pronounced ZARR-ist) system. (A czar was a ruler who wielded absolute, or unlimited, power over the Russian people.)

Hughes got his opportunity in 1931, when he joined a group of twenty African Americans whom the government of the then-Soviet Union had invited to Moscow to produce a film about the African American experience. Sometime after their arrival in Moscow, the project was abandoned, and most of the participants returned to the United States. Hughes, however, stayed to travel around the Soviet Union. One of the people he met during his trip was Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian-born British writer who would later write a novel called Darkness at Noon that was critical of the Soviet system. Hughes also spent some time touring Asia, stopping in Shanghai, China, and Tokyo, Japan, where he was questioned by the police as a suspicious person and finally sent out of the country.

Hughes returned to the United States in 1933 and moved into Noel Sullivan's home, Ennesfree, in Carmel, California. There he worked on a set of short stories that were published as The Ways of White Folk in 1934. This collection includes the stories "Home," about a talented violinist who creates resentment after returning to his hometown from Europe and who is eventually killed, and "The Blues I'm Playing," about a black pianist's conflict with her white patron (a thinly veiled portrayal of Hughes's breakup with Mason).

As the 1930s went on and the nation struggled in the midst of the Great Depression—a severe economic downturn that seemed to take an even higher toll on black people—Hughes became more outspoken about his social concerns, expressing in his poetry a rejection of both the capitalism that formed the backbone of the American economy and the Christianity that was a traditional part of both white and black American life. (Capitalism is a system of government based on private ownership and a free market system.) The poems he wrote during this period include "Goodbye Christ" and "The Ballad of Roosevelt"; the latter expresses a poor family's wait for financial assistance from U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945).

Hughes undertook a number of different projects and assignments during these difficult years: he wrote a play, Mulatto (based on one of his short stories), that ran on Broadway for a year, and he served as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). This conflict between Spain's Socialist government and the Nationalist Party, led by Francisco Franco, who staged a military takeover, attracted the attention of many liberal-minded American writers—such as fiction writer Ernest Hemingway, playwright Lillian Hellman, and critic Malcolm Crowley—who traveled to Spain to support the cause of the socialists with their presence.



An active later life

Over the next several decades Hughes continued to write poetry while also pursuing his interest in drama and other genres. In 1939 he founded the New Negro Theatre in Los Angeles, California; that same year he wrote a script for a Hollywood movie called Way Down South and worked on his autobiography, The Big Sea, which was published in 1940. After receiving a Rosenwald Fellowship to write historical plays, Hughes founded the Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1941, and they produced his play The Sun Do Move the next year. Also in 1942, Hughes's Shakespeare in Harlem was published. This volume of poems paints a bleak picture of Harlem, highlighting the poverty, frustration, and bitterness that had overtaken it since the glorious days of the Harlem Renaissance. Shakespeare in Harlem received mixed reviews from critics, but then and for the remainder of his life Hughes continued to be known as the century's leading African American poet.

During World War II (U.S. involvement began in 1941 and ended in 1945), Hughes, who had moved back to New York, wrote slogans and verses to help sell war bonds, which people bought as a way of helping the government raise money for the war effort. He also started writing a weekly column for the Chicago Defender, in which he introduced a folksy character named Jesse B. Semple (later changed to Simple), who served as a mouthpiece for Hughes's political commentary and satire. This character became very popular, and Hughes would later publish several volumes of stories about him (including The Best of Simple, 1961). Alberta K. Hunter, a female version of Simple created by Hughes, made her appearance in a volume of poems called One Way Ticket, which was dominated by a humorous, ironic tone.



"What happens to a dream deferred?"

In 1951 Hughes produced Montage of a Dream Deferred, a book-length poem that contains some of his most powerful statements about racism and warnings about where black people's continuing frustrations could lead. In the part of the poem called "Harlem," Hughes asks "What happens to a dream deferred?"—suggesting that instead of just fading away it may eventually explode. Hughes's history of social protest and interest in communism during the 1930s caused problems for him later on, when a decidedly anticommunist sentiment overtook the United States in the 1950s. He was called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953. Hughes answered all questions mildly and politely, declined to point a finger at anyone else, and distanced himself from the radical poems he had written earlier in his life.

In the remaining years of his life, Hughes continued to publish books, to make recordings of his own poetry, and to lecture—both in the United States and abroad—on black history and culture. In May 1967 he died quietly in New York after a short illness that many of his friends had known nothing about. Hughes was given a grand funeral that ended with the playing of Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing Until You Hear from Me," and then a small group of friends gathered to join hands and recite his early, celebrated poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" as his body was wheeled into a crematorium. Among his final poems, published in The Panther and the Lash (1967), was one called "Frederick Douglass," in which Hughes suggests that the freedom and equality dreamed of by the great African American leader may still be attainable.



For More Information


Books

Barksdale, Richard K. Langston Hughes: The Poet and His Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1977.

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes: Comprehensive Research and StudyGuide. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.


Emanuel, James. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Haskins, James L. The Life of Langston Hughes: Always Movin' On. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, Inc., 1993.

Hill, Christine. Langston Hughes: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1940.

Meltzer, Milton. Langston Hughes. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1997.

O'Daniel, Therman B. Langston Hughes: Black Genius. New York: Morrow, 1971.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Volume 1: 1902–1941: I,Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.


Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Volume 2: 1947–1967: IDream a World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.


Wagner, Jean. Black Poets of the United States from Paul Laurence Dunbar toLangston Hughes. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973.



Web sites

Bonvibre's Phat African American Poetry Book. [Online] http://www.math. buffalo.edu/~sww/poetry/hughes_langston.html (accessed on January 4, 2000).

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Hughes, Langston

4
Langston Hughes

Excerpt from "The Weary Blues"
Published in 1923

Recognized as the best known and most celebrated of African American poets, Langston Hughes (1902–1967) began his career, which would span five decades, during the Harlem Renaissance. This period of creative and intellectual achievement took place during the 1920s and was centered in New York City's Harlem neighborhood, which had become a gathering place for African Americans. As a young, exciting, up-and-coming poet, Hughes played an important role in setting the tone and style of this era. His vivid, often earthy poems were written in language that echoed both the jazz and blues music that dominated the Harlem Renaissance and the language spoken by the ordinary people of that time and place.

"In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—Ain't got nobody in all this world.…"

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was raised by his mother after his father left for Mexico. They moved often, and Hughes sometimes lived with his grandmother. While attending high school in Cleveland, Ohio, where his mother had moved with her new husband, Hughes began writing poems that were published in his school's literary magazine. These poems were written in traditionally rhymed and metered verse modeled after the work of the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906). However, Hughes was also influenced by some less conventional poets, such as Carl Sandburg (1878–1967) and Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

After graduating from high school, Hughes traveled by train to Mexico to spend a year with his father. He wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," during that journey. Hughes persuaded his father to pay for a year at Columbia University in New York City, where he was supposed to study engineering. But once he reached Harlem, Hughes dove wholeheartedly into the creative life thriving there. In the spring of 1921 he dropped out of Columbia. The next winter, he penned "The Weary Blues" in a voice that imitates those of piano players in the Harlem nightclubs that Hughes frequented. Writing in free verse (poetry that does not employ regular rhyme, rhythm, or other traditional patterns), Hughes used the images and rhythms of the blues to convey the spirit, strength, and cultural richness of the poem's setting.

Eager to see the world, Hughes took a job as a cook on a freighter and traveled to Africa and Europe, finally landing in Paris. He was working as a busboy in a restaurant there when he received a visit from Alain Locke (1886–1954), an older, highly influential Harlem Renaissance leader. Locke was gathering work for an issue of Survey Graphic magazine that was to focus on the accomplishments of young African American writers and artists; Hughes gave Locke some poems. Meanwhile, "The Weary Blues" had been published in Opportunity, one of the leading new magazines targeted to a black audience. After returning to New York, Hughes won a prize for the poem in the magazine's annual poetry contest.

By this time Hughes had met Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), a well-connected white writer and critic who was an enthusiastic supporter of African American artists. Van Vechten sent a manuscript of Hughes's poems to publisher Alfred A. Knopf, resulting in the appearance of a volume titled The Weary Blues in 1926. Although some commentators, especially the older, more conservative leaders of the Harlem Renaissance, accused Hughes of presenting a negative picture of African Americans, most critics had a high regard for his work. They praised Hughes for his authentic, colorful, and compassionate portrait of both the beautiful and ugly aspects of black life.


Things to remember while reading this excerpt from "The Weary Blues" …

Like other writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes wanted to celebrate, but not sanitize, the African American heritage that he cherished. In his poetry he aimed to speak in a voice that was both personal and authentic, that expressed his own feelings but was spoken as people really talked and was thus accessible to a wide audience. He wanted to portray black people's lives in a way that was both realistic and dignified.

Hughes's gritty portrayal of the seedy side of African American culture (such as poverty and prostitution) was not appreciated by the Talented Tenth. This was the name given by black leader W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) to the upper crust

Countee Cullen: Favorite of the Talented Tenth

Unlike Langston Hughes, Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen was a favorite of the "Talented Tenth," which was black leader W.E.B. Du Bois's term for the most educated and accomplished segment of African American society. Whereas the poetry of Langston Hughes was written in jazz-inflected free verse and embraced the entire spectrum of black life, Cullen used traditional forms and focused on more universal subject matter.

Born around 1903, Cullen's early childhood was spent in the care of a woman thought to have been his grandmother. He was adopted in 1918 by Reverend Frederick Cullen and his wife. Cullen's adoptive parents were civil rights advocates and active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Cullen absorbed their political values, but did not share their religious beliefs.

Cullen was an excellent student, and he began to write and publish his poetry while still in high school. Soon after graduating in 1922, he became involved with a group of writers who met regularly at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. Well-liked for his gentlemanly manners and sunny personality, Cullen, like Du Bois, believed in projecting a positive image to gain respect, both as an individual and as an African-American in a predominantly white society.

While attending New York University, Cullen won a prominent poetry prize for "The Ballad of a Brown Girl," a poem that highlights his awareness of racial strife. In 1925 he won three more major awards, including one from Opportunity, aleading black magazine. That same year Cullen's first collection of poetry, Color, was published. This volume included some of his best known works, including "Yet Do I Marvel," in which the narrator wonders why God created him as a black poet in a world too racist to accept either him or his poetry.

Cullen received a master's degree from Harvard University in 1926, and then became an assistant editor at Opportunity. He also began writing a weekly column commenting on literature. One of the views he expressed was that African American poets should not expose the more unpleasant aspects of black life, but should focus more on universal subjects and themes. By the end of the 1920s, Cullen had published several more volumes of poetry, including The Ballad of a Brown Girl and Copper Sun, and an anthology of poems by African Americans.

In 1928 Cullen married Du Bois's daughter Nina, but the couple divorced two years later. Soon after the wedding Cullen traveled to France, where he authored a book of poetry and his one novel. Neither received much critical praise. Returning to the United States, Cullen taught French and English in a Harlem high school, a job he held throughout the rest of his life. He published several more books of poetry and two collections of children's stories. After Cullen's death in 1946, a branch of the New York Public Library was named for him.

of African American society, whose members, it was hoped, would help bring about racial progress through their abilities and achievements. Du Bois and others felt that exposing the less positive aspects of black life would merely confirm the racist assumptions of many whites.

"The Weary Blues" was one of several poems printed on the walls of the Dark Tower, a nightclub and literary gathering place on Striver's Row, where the richest residents of Harlem lived. The Dark Tower was located in the elegant home of A'lelia Walker, heir to the fortune of Madame C.J. Walker, who had made millions through the manufacture of black hair care products. During the Harlem Renaissance, the Dark Tower was the place for both black and white enthusiasts of African American culture to see and be seen.

Excerpt from "The Weary Blues"

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What happened next …

Hughes continued to create his detailed portraits of Harlem life in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), which features finely crafted poems written in the language of the streets. In 1930, a year after Hughes graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, his novel Not Without Laughter was published. Centered on a black family living in mostly white Kansas, the novel was not highly acclaimed. The next year Hughes began a successful poetry-reading tour of the South, during which he was warmly received at numerous black colleges. His interest in socialism (a political and economic system by which the means of production and distribution are owned by the community as a whole) inspired him to spend some time in the Soviet Union. Soon after his return, he wrote the short stories that appeared in The Ways of White Folk (1934).


During the Great Depression, the period of economic hardship that followed on the heels of the prosperous 1920s, Hughes's poetry became much darker, reflecting the suffering endured by blacks during these years. He remained busy over the next several decades, producing poetry and plays as well as a weekly column for the Chicago Defender newspaper. The volume titled Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) contains some of Hughes's most powerful poems. For example, the poem titled "Harlem" asks "What happens to a dream deferred?" Up until his death in 1967, Hughes continued to write poetry and to lecture on black history and culture.

Did you know …

  • As the Harlem Renaissance drew to a close, several important relationships in Hughes's life also ended. He made a break with Charlotte Mason (1854–1946), an elderly white supporter of African American culture who had given him both moral and financial support but who had become too controlling of his work. Hughes's friendship with Zora Neale Hurston also came to an end over a disagreement about a play called Mule Bone that the two had worked on together.
  • At Hughes's funeral, a song by Duke Ellington (1899–1974), one of the most prominent jazz musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, called "Do Nothing Until You Hear from Me" was played. Then his friends gathered in a circle and recited Hughes's early poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" as his body was wheeled away to be cremated. This poem evokes the connections between black people and the great rivers of the world, including the Nile in Egypt, the Congo in southern Africa, and the Mississippi in the United States. It concludes with the words "My soul has grown deep like rivers."

Consider this …

  • The popular image of the 1920s is that it was a time of prosperity, fun, and frivolity. How does Hughes's poem present a different view of life during this decade?
  • Compare this poem with one written by an earlier African American poet, like Paul Laurence Dunbar. Describe the styles of the two writers, and explain why each may have written the way he did.

For More Information

Books

Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. Westport, CT: Lawrence Hill, 1983.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes: Comprehensive Research and Study Guide. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House, 1999.

Emanuel, James. Langston Hughes. New York: Twayne, 1967.

Hill, Christine. Langston Hughes: Poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Hillside, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1997.

Web Sites

"Langston Hughes." Poetry Exhibits. Academy of American Poets. Available online at http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?45442B7C000C0E01. Accessed on June 20, 2005.

"Langston Hughes (1902–1967)." Modern American Poetry. Available online at http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/hughes.htm. Accessed on June 20, 2005.

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