Langston Hughes Biography: American Poet, Key Figure in Harlem Renaissance

Writing with vivid imagery and jazz-influenced rhythms of ordinary Black life in the United States, Langston Hughes was a distinctive voice in American poetry(Langston Hughes Biography). While he is most renowned for his modern, free-form poetry, Hughes also wrote fiction, theatre, and cinema, and all of these genres were influenced by him.

Langston Hughes Early Years

Joplin, Missouri, was the birthplace of Langston Hughes in 1902. A few months after that, his father divorced his mother and took the family on a trip.

He was mostly nurtured by his grandmother, Mary Langston, who had a great impact on Hughes, instructing him in the oral traditions of his people and instilling in him a feeling of pride; she was alluded to frequently in his poetry.

Hughes went to live with his mother and her new husband in Lincoln, Illinois after the death of Mary Langston. After he started high school, he started composing poems.

For a brief while in 1919, Hughes lived with his father in Mexico. Hughes returned to Mexico after completing his secondary education in 1920. At Columbia University in New York, his father refused to pay for Hughes’s tuition because he felt that writing was a bad professional choice.

Instead, he promised to pay for college as long as Hughes went into engineering. Columbia University was a great place for Hughes to learn and grow as an artist in 1921, but he found the neighboring Harlem area inspirational.

Throughout the remainder of his life, his love for Harlem remained unwavering in his heart. A year after he graduated from Columbia, he left the country and worked as a crewman on a boat in Africa, before moving on to Paris. The Black expatriate art community welcomed him into their ranks.

When Hughes was in high school, he wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers and published it in The Crisis, which was the official journal of the NAACP.

The poem, which was inspired by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, is a free-verse ode to all Black people throughout history:
In 1925, Hughes received the Poetry Prize from Opportunity Magazine and began regularly publishing his poetry. In 1926, after meeting fellow writer Carl Van Vechten on a trip to Europe, Alfred A. Knopf published Hughes’ first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, with much enthusiasm.

While working as a busboy at a Washington, D.C. hotel, Hughes gave many poems to poet Vachel Lindsay, who claimed to have found him in the mainstream media at the time.

Hughes was awarded a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania because of his literary achievements, and he went on to publish The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain in The Nation. In the post, the author called for more Black artists to develop Black-centric art without caring about the reception of white audiences.

Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes’ second book of poetry, was released in 1927. In 1929, he received a bachelor’s degree. With the publication of Not Without Laughter in 1930, Hughes signaled the continuation of his progress and the approaching explorations outside of poetry. It is sometimes labeled as a “prose poem” and at other times as a book.

It was at this moment that Langston Hughes cemented his place as a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. As the public’s interest in Black culture grew, the literary community praised it.

Langston Hughes Personal Life

Although Hughes is said to have had several relationships with women, he never married or had children.

Some say that Hughes, known for his deep feelings for Black men, hid his homosexuality in plain sight in his poetry; others claim that his poems are rife with allusions to his sexuality (something Walt Whitman, one of his key influences, was known to do in his work).

Despite the lack of proof, some believe that Hughes was asexual and disinterested in sexual relations.

Despite his early and long-term interest in socialism and his trip to the Soviet Union, when Senator Joseph McCarthy invited Hughes to testify, Hughes denied being a communist.

As a result, he fell out of favor with the political left, which had previously backed him. Due to his increasing distance from politics in the 1950s, he gathered the poems for Selected Poems with just a few of the more politically-oriented pieces from his childhood included in the book.

Langston Hughes Death

On May 22, 1967, Hughes was admitted to the Stuyvesant Polyclinic in New York City for surgery to treat his prostate cancer.

Hughes died at the age of 65 when complications emerged after the treatment. Funeral arrangements included cremation and burial at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The Schomburg’s floor features an engraved verse from the poet’s The Negro Speaks of Rivers, as well as an image of the poet.

Langston Hughes Quotes

  • Democracy

    “I swear to the Lord
     I still can’t see
    Why Democracy means
     Everybody but me.
    Langston Hughes”

  • Dreams and Dreamers

    “What happens to a dream deferred?
    Does it dry up
    like a raisin in the sun?
    Or fester like a sore—
    And then run?
    . . .
    Or does it explode?
    Langston Hughes”

  • Race and Ethnic Heritage

     “It’s powerful,” he said.
     “What?”
     “That one drop of Negro blood—because just one drop of black blood makes a man colored. One drop—you are a Negro!”Langston Hughes: Simple Takes a Wife

Langston Hughes Biography

Facts

Also Known As James Mercer Langston Hughes
Born February 1, 1902 • Joplin • Missouri
Died May 22, 1967 (aged 65) • New York City • New York
Notable Works “Dream Variation” • “Fine Clothes to the Jew” • “Harlem” • “Letters from Langston: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Red Scare and Beyond” • “Mule Bone” • “Not Without Laughter” • “One-Way Ticket” • “The Panther and the Lash” • “The Big Sea” • “The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes” • “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” • “The Weary Blues”
Movement / Style Harlem Renaissance

Legacy

Black artists of the early 20th century were progressively going inward and writing for an insular audience around the time Hughes began composing his poems.

However, he wrote for a wide audience to transmit his thoughts in emotive, easily-understood themes and phrases that at the same time had a powerful, subtlety-laden power behind them.

While most Black literature avoided depicting individuals like alcoholics, gamblers, and prostitutes out of concern that they would prove some of the most racist beliefs, Hughes included such characters in his poetry because he wanted to show that they exist.

The “indelicate” aspect of his work didn’t make Hughes apologize, rather, Hughes maintained that revealing all parts of Black culture was a vital part of capturing existence. Our website TheActiveNews.com is a great place to get new and interesting content.

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