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Langston Hughes –
The Black Poet Laureate

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. His mother was a school teacher and poet while his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, was a shopkeeper. After his parents separated his mother migrated from city to city looking for work, dragging young Langston behind to such places as Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Indiana and New York. He also lived part of the time with his grandmother, Mary Langston.

At the age of 13, Langston Hughes moved back in with his mother and her second husband. They moved to Cleveland, Ohio where young Langston would discover the free verse of Carl Sandburg, who would become an influence. Other early influences included Walt Whitman, Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Claude McKay. Due to his early development in writing style, his eighth grade class elected him as their class poet.

After graduating high school he moved to Mexico and in 1921 returned to the States to write “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which was published in Crisis, a popular African-American journal of the time. Also in 1921, he published “The Golden Piece,” a play.

Click here to hear an audio of
"The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

He enrolled in Columbia University in New York but wouldn’t remain there long. He abandoned his studies in lieu of jazz and blues in Harlem. He also worked odd jobs to make a living and traveled extensively, as far as Paris, France, Italy and West Africa. But it was during this time that he established his reputation as a respected and gifted young African-American poet.

He continued writing poetry and earned a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1926 he published The Weary Blues, his first book of poetry, which fused jazz and blues together with traditional verse. His second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927. He graduated from Lincoln University in 1929.

In 1930, young Langston Hughes published his first novel, Not Without Laughter, with the generous support of a wealthy white woman, Charlotte Mason. The novel was about a black Midwestern struggling family and gained wide notoriety. His success allowed him to purchase an automobile, however, his relationship with Mason deteriorated and he became very unhappy. He was also criticized by many African Americans for his focus on life as a low-class black in America.

In the early 1930’s, Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union, Japan and Haiti. During this trip he had an affair with an Oriental ballerina and penned “Goodbye, Christ,” a poem that would draw the ire of a Christian fundamentalist group in the 1940’s. His politics turned radical and he once again focused on race relations with a bit of satire and wrote a collection of short stories titled The Ways of White Folks in 1934.

Soon after, he wrote a play, “Mulatto,” which appeared on Broadway in 1935. However, the producer revised it and added a rape scene without his knowledge, which he did not find too pleasing. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship that year and founded black theater groups in Chicago, Harlem and Los Angeles. He also wrote two other plays, "Little Ham," a comedy, in 1936, and "Emperor of Haiti," a historical drama, in 1937.

During 1937, he served as a newspaper correspondent for the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American. He also roamed Europe during much of this time and spent a great deal of time in Madrid, Spain. He befriended Ernest Hemingway and they attended bullfights together. He returned to Harlem in 1942 and permanently made it his home.

He wrote the first volume of his autobiography in 1940 and titled it The Big Sea. In 1942, a book of verse, Shakespeare in Harlem, appeared. Then, in 1943, he attacked racial segregation with Jim Crow’s Last Stand. Perhaps one of the most important works of his life was a newspaper column he started in 1942 and which ran for 20 years. It ran in the Chicago Defender and featured a fictional character by the name of Jesse B. Semple who issued commentaries on race matters.

In 1951, Langston Hughes broke new ground with Montage of a Dream Deferred, which featured “Harlem,” one of his most famous and widely praised poems. He was forced to answer questions regarding his communist leanings during this time, largely due to his communist-friendly writings early in life, but he refused to admit to any communist sympathies. He published the second volume to his autobiography in 1956, which he titled I Wonder As I Wander.

One of Hughes’ most important and re-digested works is "Black Nativity," which he published in 1961. It was a Christmas play and churches and African-American groups play it each year all across America. In 1964, he returned to racial relations again with the publication of Jericho – Jim Crow. He died in May 1967 in New York City.

Langston Hughes is an important figure in African-American literature. He is read widely and hailed today as the black poet laureate. He helped usher in the Harlem Renaissance and made the African-American voice a respected, meaningful addition to U.S. culture at home and abroad.

Read “I, too, Sing America” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes.

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