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Langston Hughes: a Biography

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. The big name was emblematic of a formidable family history. His maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, was the first black woman to graduate from Oberlin College in Ohio. She married two abolitionists: first Sheridan Leary, who was killed in the raid at Harper's Ferry; and then Charles Langston (Langston Hughes's grandfather), a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad and the founder of several Midwestern schools for African American children. (Charles Langston's brother was John Mercer Langston, who in 1855 won a local Ohio election and became the first African American elected to public office in the United States. In 1888 he became the first black U.S. Congressman elected from Virginia).

Familial prominence did not guarantee stability however. Hughes's parents divorced when he was very young, and his grandmother reared him. By the time Langston was 14, he had lived in nine places, mostly around the Midwest. His grandmother had first exposed the young boy to the Bible and to The Crisis, the magazine of the recently formed National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hughes never took to religion, but writing was another story.

Hughes defied his father's wishes in choosing writing as a career. A businessman and lawyer, James Hughes had left America for Mexico City when Langston was very young. He was an outspoken critic of American racism although he believed the sad plight of American blacks was self-inflicted. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Langston Hughes bluntly wrote, "My father hated Negroes." In spite of their troubled relationship, James Hughes consented to pay for Langston's education at Columbia, provided that his son study engineering. His son, however, had already discovered poetry. And once at Columbia, he discovered Harlem. Hughes dropped out after two semesters, in 1922.

Hughes indulged a sense of wanderlust unrivaled by his fellow African American writers. In 1923 he joined the crew of a steamer and sailed for Africa, making him one of the only Harlem Renaissance writers at that time to have actually seen the lauded continent. The following year, as part of another crew, he set sail for Europe. Holland was the ship's destination, but Paris became Hughes's temporary home. There he witnessed a thriving black art community and heard jazz for the first time.

On his return to America in 1925, he found black music and dance all the rage among white society in New York. "It was the period," Hughes wrote in his autobiography, "when the Negro was in vogue." There was no official start date for the "Harlem Renaissance," but the name was given to the period during the 1920s and early '30s when black art and activism flourished. Blacks were no longer merely "exotic" subjects of art; they were producing it as well, in record numbers.

Hughes had already taken the black literary community by storm in 1921 with the publication of the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," and on his return to America, he was taken under the wing of such luminaries as W.E.B. Du Bois; novelist and Crisis editor Jessie Fauset; and scholar Alain Locke, whose The New Negro (1925) became the definitive artistic anthology of the period. In 1926, Hughes wrote the essay that some considered a manifesto for the Renaissance, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Published in The Nation, the essay called for the coexistence of racial pride and artistic integrity. "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame," the 24-year-old wrote. "We know we are beautiful. And ugly too."

In 1926 Hughes published his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, which was infused with rhythms of blues and jazz. Both the black and white press (even the white southern press) hailed it as a masterpiece.

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Hughes considered his follow-up collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), superior to The Weary Blues -- more experimental, more representative of black America. But nobody else seemed to think so at the time. The white press found the title offensive (a title Hughes said he regretted and would have changed, had his publisher asked) and the black press was offended by everything else. Hughes's predilection for dialect and his focus on poor blacks was lambasted as a "disgrace to the race." Headlines trumpeted Hughes's transgressions: "Langston Hughes's Book of Poems Trash" and "Langston Hughes -- The Sewer Dweller." The once-dubbed "Negro poet laureate" had become the "poet lowrate of Harlem."

Hughes was charged with parading negative images of blacks in front of white readers. But polished, educated blacks, he felt, were not the only blacks worth putting on paper. The people who captured his imagination and populated his work, he said in The Big Sea, were "the ordinary Negroes [who] hadn't heard of the Negro Renaissance." Early on, a critic had called Hughes's poetry "proletarian" because of his closeness to everyday people in everyday situations. His trademark became his fusion of black speech and music, primarily jazz and blues (though later in his career he would incorporate gospel, with less success), with verse and stories about the urban North and the rural South.

The traveling bug bit again in the '30s. Hughes's tours of the American South and the Soviet Union had a tremendous impact on his poetry of the next decade. In the '30s it took on a left-leaning bent; in the '40s seething condemnation of racism in America. Despite his travels, he would make his home in Harlem until the end of his life.

In 1951 Hughes published his most important volume of poetry in years. Montage of a Dream Deferred hearkened back to those early volumes in which the form and sound of the poetry are integrally related to its meaning. Early jazz had given way to a new form, bebop, and bebop's discordant rhythms suffused Montage, mirroring the growing unrest and unease in urban black communities.

Hughes would never again be so socially relevant. The Black Power movement of the '60s, which was gaining momentum, especially among urban blacks, criticized Hughes for being too conciliatory toward whites. Hughes responded with a book of poetry about the civil rights movement, The Panther and the Lash, which was published posthumously.

By the time of his death from cancer on May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes had been in the public eye for more than 40 years. Unlike his famous ancestors, the grandson and nephew stayed out of the political arena -- at least officially. From the 1920s on, Langston Hughes produced a vast body of literature that presented race relations to both black and white America as no writer had before, or really has since. His output was prolific, unmatched by any of his contemporaries: 16 volumes of poetry, two novels, three short story collections, 20 plays, novels, essays, historical works, musical shows. His gift of voice and his wide appeal remain his legacy. "Langston Hughes," said actor and activist Ossie Davis, "belongs to whoever is listening."


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Portrait of Langston Hughes

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