Langston Hughes: An African-American Poet for All People

On a chill February day in 1902 a baby was born in the mining boomtown of Joplin, Missouri, a city then billed as “The Lead And Zinc Capital of the World.” Located on the western edge of Missouri and bordering both Oklahoma and Kansas, Joplin had few African-American residents in the early 20th century but the child born on February 1, 1902 would prove to be one of the city’s most famous natives. Langston Hughes is one of the noted modern poets and well known for his part in the “Harlem Renaissance” that brought African-American artists a national spotlight.

James Mercer Langston Hughes, best known as poet Langston Hughes, could trace a long line of Abolitionists on his maternal side of the family. In Joplin, his parents were involved with mining. His mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, was a schoolteacher and his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, had hoped to become a lawyer. After completing law studies in Oklahoma, he had not been allowed to test for the Bar nor was he allowed to practice law in Missouri. On the day of his son’s birth, Hughes was angry because a law that prohibited blacks from becoming lawyers had just been passed. He left Missouri for Mexico soon after his son was born and divorced his wife, Carrie.

Young Langston grew up with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas and in several other cities. His mother had remarried and with stepfather Homer Clark, the small family traveled from city to city in search of a better life. After the death of his grandmother in 1915, Langston Hughes accompanied his parents but was often left in the care of other relatives or friends. An essay, Ten Thousand Beds, describes his nomadic childhood.

He graduated from 8th grade in Lincoln, IL and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when his stepfather relocated to find work in the steel mills. Langston Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland where he was nicknamed “Class Poet”. He befriended white students while other classmates shunned him, an experience that would give him insight into racial issues. First hand prejudice gave him a keen sense which Caucasians were “decent” and which “reactionary”. He graduated from high school in 1920 and against his mother’s wishes headed south to join his father in Mexico. Langston learned two important things in Mexico – that his father, a black man, hated Negroes and that he could “pass” as a Mexican. Ironically he found that many whites treated him better when he was mistaken as a Mexican than as a black.

One of his greatest works, The Negro Speaks of Rivers was inspired by a Mississippi River crossing while en route to Mexico and the work was published in 1921 after his return to the United States. Hughes’ father expected his son to enroll at Columbia University to study engineering and provided funds for his son’s education. Hughes soon withdrew from Columbia to embark on several years of world travel, a whirlwind odyssey that began in 1923.

During this time, Langston Hughes visited Africa and spent time in Paris where he washed dishes in a well-known cabaret. His poetry and short stories from this era reflect his emerging views. Many of these works were published at home and when financial reasons sent him back to America, he found work in Washington D.C.

Hughes’ mother had moved to D.C. and he did several blue collar jobs until he was hired by historian/publisher Carter G. Woodson. The job, though prestigious, caused Hughes eyestrain and he chafed even as he continued to write.
In 1925 he won a poetry award from a magazine called Opportunity and the following year saw his first poetry collection titled A Weary Blues published and literary acclaim. Langston returned to school and began college at the nation’s first African-American College, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Nearby New York beckoned to the young poet and he spent all his available free time in the Big Apple. His next poetry volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew, was published in 1927.

By 1927, the Harlem Renaissance was flourishing and Langston Hughes was celebrated as one of the talented blacks of the period. Many African-Americans found his use of dialect, blues and jazz connections, and portrayal of working class individuals loathsome and low class. While he enjoyed literary acclaim in many circles, some members of the Harlem Renaissance nicknamed Hughes the “poet low-rate of Harlem”, a nasty version of “Poet Laureate”, a high ranking honor awarded to poets.

Hughes continued to write about the “low down folks” of his own youth and many travels. He graduated from Lincoln University in 1929 and completed his first novel, Not Without Laughter, that found publication in 1930. His financial support came from many backers who believed in his talent but one of the wealthiest supporters, Charlotte Mason, decried his novel as a disaster.

Langston Hughes chose honor and integrity over money and broke off from Charlotte Mason in 1930. With money from the Rosenwald Foundation, Langston Hughes began travels through the American South where he held poetry readings.
Accounts of his readings indicate that he was a handsome man, an excellent reader, and possessed a charming personality.
Never one to let dust settle around his feet, Langston Hughes accompanied a group of African-Americans to Russia in 1932. The group had hoped to launch a film project but the idea never came to pass. Hughes remained in Russia after his companions returned home to explore the Soviet Union. His observations resulted in a strong appreciation for Communism and he began writing about his findings.

Since Russia, unlike America of that time, had no Jim Crow laws and offered both education and medical care for all citizens, Hughes found the political doctrine appealing. His works during the 1930’s reflect his Communist leanings and he wrote several plays. As a playwright, Hughes founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater in 1938. New York City became his home and he delighted in the city, often writing about the city that he loved and the urban settings of America’s Big Apple.

America went to war and joined Allied Forces during World War II. Near the age of 40 when the United States entered the war, Hughes did not volunteer for military service but turned his talents toward patriotic efforts. He wrote jingles designed to sell war bonds and supported the “Double V” campaign of the black press. His weekly columns in a Chicago newspaper urged Americans to support the Allied Forces. A fictional character from these columns, Jesse B. Semple, soon became just “Simple” and a volume of books with “Simple” stories appeared in 1950.

I In the postwar period Hughes continued his efforts as a poet and playwright with some success until 1953 when Senator Joseph McCarthy launched his vendetta against Communists and other subversives. Langston Hughes’ sentiments about Communism were well known and he was called to testify before the Senate hearings. His work was sometimes boycotted and his reputation maligned for a few years but Hughes, who presented himself as an honest American citizen, prevailed. This stand drew fire from staunch Communist supporters.

With his career as a writer back on track, Hughes became prolific, often accepting multiple book contracts at the same time. His hectic, harried work schedule continued from the 1950’s until his death in 1967. Hughes continued to write poetry and novels but also wrote juvenile histories. Some of these included The First Book of Jazz and Famous Negro Music Makers. During his career Hughes published more than three dozen books, many in the last decade of his life.

In 1961 Langston Hughes was inducted to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He also continued with his weekly newspaper columns until 1965. After twenty-two years as a columnist, Hughes’ opinions began to be attacked and accusations that he joked about racial issues which became volatile and violent during the Sixties Decade.

Hughes’ life ended on May 22, 1967 in his beloved New York City of complications from cancer. Despite his death, his work lives on and new works were published posthumously. In 1991, eighty nine years after his birth in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes’ cremated remains were interred beneath an exhibit I’ve Known Rivers in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. In his native Joplin, the former Broadway Avenue was renamed Langston Hughes Boulevard.

Hughes remains one of the most noted talents of the African-American literary community, a man who never forgot his humble roots or the plight of his fellow African-Americans. His family heritage in the Abolitionist Movement and his family history contributed to the man who became a literary light of the 20th century. His grandfather, Charles Henry Langston, was brother to the first black elected public official, John Mercer Hughes, for which Langston Hughes was named.

Most biographers and literary experts have concluded that Langston Hughes was gay. Less is known of his personal life than his literary accomplishments. His prose and poetry still resonant with the voice of the working class, of African-Americans, in a song that recorded a time, place, and people in America.

Poems like Mother To Son that spoke of the often harsh realities of life used dialect to capture the voice of his people.

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.

The mother’s voice speaks of her life and yet the poem conveys a message of hope, a torch passed from generation to the next, that the son perhaps may ascend where his mother could not.

Langston Hughes, poet and writer, remains one of the nation’s foremost African-American authors today. Readers of all colors, all genders, all backgrounds read his words and savor them. His work will stand the test of time.

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