Biography of Langston Hughes, Poet, Key Figure in Harlem Renaissance

Hughes wrote about the African-American experience

Langston Hughes, 1959
Langston Hughes, 1959.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images

Langston Hughes was a singular voice in American poetry, writing with vivid imagery and jazz-influenced rhythms about the everyday black experience in the United States. While best-known for his modern, free-form poetry with superficial simplicity masking deeper symbolism, Hughes worked in fiction, drama, and film as well.

Hughes purposefully mixed his own personal experiences into his work, setting him apart from other major black poets of the era, and placing him at the forefront of the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. From the early 1920s to the late 1930s, this explosion of poetry and other work by black Americans profoundly changed the artistic landscape of the country and continues to influence writers to this day.

Fast Facts: Langston Hughes

  • Full Name: James Mercer Langston Hughes
  • Known For: Poet, novelist, journalist, activist
  • Born: February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri
  • Parents: James and Caroline Hughes (née Langston)
  • Died: May 22, 1967 in New York, New York
  • Education: Lincoln University of Pennsylvania
  • Selected Works: The Weary Blues, The Ways of White Folks, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Montage of a Dream Deferred
  • Notable Quote: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Early Years

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His father divorced his mother shortly thereafter and left them to travel. As a result of the split, he was primarily raised by his grandmother, Mary Langston, who had a strong influence on Hughes, educating him in the oral traditions of his people and impressing upon him a sense of pride; she was referred to often in his poems. After Mary Langston died, Hughes moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her new husband. He began writing poetry shortly after enrolling in high school.

Hughes moved to Mexico in 1919 to live with his father for a short time. In 1920, Hughes graduated high school and returned to Mexico. He wished to attend Columbia University in New York and lobbied his father for financial assistance; his father did not think writing was a good career, and offered to pay for college only if Hughes studied engineering. Hughes attended Columbia University in 1921 and did well, but found the racism he encountered there to be corrosive—though the surrounding Harlem neighborhood was inspiring to him. His affection for Harlem remained strong for the rest of his life. He left Columbia after one year, worked a series of odd jobs, and traveled to Africa working as a crewman on a boat, and from there on to Paris. There he became part of the black expatriate community of artists.

Langston Hughes As Busboy
Langston Hughes working as a busboy in hotel restaurant before his writing career took hold, Washington DC, 1925. He left three poems beside poet Vachel Lindsay's plate and Lindsay read them the next evening at the start of his recital. Underwood Archives / Getty Images

The Crisis to Fine Clothes to the Jew (1921-1930)

  • The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1921)
  • The Weary Blues (1926)
  • The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926)
  • Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927)
  • Not Without Laughter (1930)

Hughes wrote his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers while still in high school, and published it in The Crisis, the official magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The poem gained Hughes a great deal of attention; influenced by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, it is a tribute to black people throughout history in a free verse format:

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.

Hughes began to publish poems on a regular basis, and in 1925 won the Poetry Prize from Opportunity Magazine. Fellow writer Carl Van Vechten, who Hughes had met on his overseas travels, sent Hughes’ work to Alfred A. Knopf, who enthusiastically published Hughes’ first collection of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926.

Langston Hughes
American poet and writer Langston Hughes, circa 1945. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Around the same time, Hughes took advantage of his job as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel to give several poems to poet Vachel Lindsay, who began to champion Hughes in the mainstream media of the time, claiming to have discovered him. Based on these literary successes, Hughes received a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and published The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain in The Nation. The piece was a manifesto calling for more black artists to produce black-centric art without worrying whether white audiences would appreciate it—or approve of it.

In 1927, Hughes published his second collection of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jew. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1929. In 1930, Hughes published Not Without Laughter, which is sometimes described as a "prose poem" and sometimes as a novel, signaling his continued evolution and his impending experiments outside of poetry.

By this point, Hughes was firmly established as a leading light in what is known as the Harlem Renaissance. The literary movement celebrated black art and culture as public interest in the subject soared.

Fiction, Film, and Theater Work (1931-1949)

  • The Ways of White Folks (1934)
  • Mulatto (1935)
  • Way Down South (1935)
  • The Big Sea (1940)

Hughes traveled through the American South in 1931 and his work became more forcefully political, as he became increasingly aware of the racial injustices of the time. Always sympathetic to communist political theory, seeing it as an alternative to the implicit racism of capitalism, he also traveled extensively through the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

He published his first collection of short fiction, The Ways of White Folks, in 1934. The story cycle is marked by a certain pessimism in regards to race relations; Hughes seems to suggest in these stories that there will never be a time without racism in this country. His play Mulatto, first staged in 1935, deals with many of the same themes as the most famous story in the collection, Cora Unashamed, which tells the story of a black servant who develops a close emotional bond with the young white daughter of her employers.

Poster For '‘Way Down South'
One sheet movie poster advertises 'Way Down South,' a plantation drama written by Langston Hughes and starring Clarence Muse, Matthew Stymie Beard and Bobby Brean, 1939. John Kisch Archive / Getty Images

Hughes became increasingly interested in the theater, and founded the New York Suitcase Theater with Paul Peters in 1931. After receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, he also co-founded a theater troupe in Los Angeles while co-writing the screenplay for the film Way Down South. Hughes imagined he would be an in-demand screenwriter in Hollywood; his failure to gain much success in the industry was put down to racism. He wrote and published his autobiography The Big Sea in 1940 despite being only 28 years old; the chapter titled Black Renaissance discussed the literary movement in Harlem and inspired the name "Harlem Renaissance."

Continuing his interest in theater, Hughes founded the Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1941 and began writing a regular column for the Chicago Defender, which he would continue to write for two decades. After World War II and the Civil Rights Movement’s rise and successes, Hughes found that the younger generation of black artists, coming into a world where segregation was ending and real progress seemed possible in terms of race relations and the black experience, saw him as a relic of the past. His style of writing and black-centric subject matter seemed passé.

Children’s Books and Later Work (1950-1967)

  • Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
  • The First Book of the Negroes (1952)
  • I Wonder as I Wander (1956)
  • A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956)
  • The Book of Negro Folklore (1958)

Hughes attempted to interact with the new generation of black artists by directly addressing them, but rejecting what he saw as their vulgarity and over-intellectual approach. His epic poem "suite," Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) took inspiration from jazz music, collecting a series of related poems sharing the overarching theme of a "dream deferred" into something akin to a film montage—a series of images and short poems following quickly after each other in order to position references and symbolism together. The most famous section from the larger poem is the most direct and powerful statement of the theme, known as Harlem:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

In 1956, Hughes published his second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander. He took a greater interest in documenting the cultural history of black America, producing A Pictorial History of the Negro in America in 1956, and editing The Book of Negro Folklore in 1958.

Hughes continued to work throughout the 1960s and was considered by many to be the leading writer of Black America at the time, although none of his works after Montage of a Dream Deferred approached the power and clarity of his work during his prime.

Langston Hughes
Poet Langston Hughes standing in street in Harlem, 1958. The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images / Getty Images

Although Hughes had previously published a book for children in 1932 (Popo and Fifina), in the 1950s he began publishing books specifically for children regularly, including his First Book series, which was designed to instill a sense of pride in and respect for the cultural achievements of African Americans in its youth. The series included The First Book of the Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1954), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), The First Book of the West Indies (1956), and The First Book of Africa (1964).

The tone of these children’s books was perceived as very patriotic as well as focused on the appreciation of black culture and history. Many people, aware of Hughes’ flirtations with communism and his run-in with Senator McCarthy, suspected he attempted to make his children’s books self-consciously patriotic in order to combat any perception that he might not be a loyal citizen.

Personal Life

While Hughes reportedly had several affairs with women during his life, he never married or had children. Theories concerning his sexual orientation abound; many believe that Hughes, known for strong affections for black men in his life, seeded clues about his homosexuality throughout his poems (something Walt Whitman, one of his key influences, was known to do in his own work). However, there is no overt evidence to support this, and some argue that Hughes was, if anything, asexual and uninterested in sex.

Despite his early and long-term interest in socialism and his visit to the Soviet Union, Hughes denied being a communist when called to testify by Senator Joseph McCarthy. He then distanced himself from communism and socialism, and was thus estranged from the political left that had often supported him. His work dealt less and less with political considerations after the mid-1950s as a result, and when he compiled the poems for his 1959 collection Selected Poems, he excluded most of his more politically-focused work from his youth.

Death

Schomburg Center, Langston Hughes
Floor at the Schomburg Center where Langston Hughes' ashes are interred. Wikimedia Commons / hitormiss / CC 2.0

Hughes was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and entered the Stuyvesant Polyclinic in New York City on May 22, 1967 to undergo surgery to treat the disease. Complications arose during the procedure, and Hughes passed away at the age of 65. He was cremated, and his ashes interred in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, where the floor bears a design based on his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers, including a line from the poem inscribed on the floor.

Legacy

Hughes turned his poetry outward at a time in the early 20th century when black artists were increasingly turning inward, writing for an insular audience. Hughes wrote about black history and the black experience, but he wrote for a general audience, seeking to convey his ideas in emotional, easily-understood motifs and phrases that nevertheless had power and subtlety behind them.

Hughes incorporated the rhythms of modern speech in black neighborhoods and of jazz and blues music, and he included characters of "low" morals in his poems, including alcoholics, gamblers, and prostitutes, whereas most black literature sought to disavow such characters because of a fear of proving some of the worst racist assumptions. Hughes felt strongly that showing all aspects of black culture was part of reflecting life and refused to apologize for what he called the "indelicate" nature of his writing.

Sources

  • Als, Hilton. “The Elusive Langston Hughes.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 9 July 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner.
  • Ward, David C. “Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 May 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-langston-hughes-still-reigns-poet-unchampioned-180963405/.
  • Johnson, Marisa, et al. “Women in the Life of Langston Hughes.” US History Scene, http://ushistoryscene.com/article/women-and-hughes/.
  • McKinney, Kelsey. “Langston Hughes Wrote a Children's Book in 1955.” Vox, Vox, 2 Apr. 2015, https://www.vox.com/2015/4/2/8335251/langston-hughes-jazz-book.
  • Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, https://poets.org/poet/langston-hughes.