Langston Hughes’s Life
Langston Hughes was an American poet, playwright, essayist, columnist, novelist, and lyricist, and was one of the innovators of the new literary art of jazz poetry. Hughes was born in Joplin in the state of Missouri in the United States on February 1, 1902. He was the second child of his parents, Caroline Mercer Langston, a schoolteacher, and James Nathaniel Hughes.
The family was seemingly happy until his parents’ marriage broke up and James, Hughes’s father, left them. It is reported that the reason of Hughes’s father’s escape was racial discrimination in the United States. He went to Cuba, and later departed for Mexico. To make a living, Hughes’s mother started traveling in search of employment and thus Hughes’s maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, took on the responsibility of Hughes’s upbringing. Mary instilled a lasting impression of racial pride in him. Hughes’s paternal relations were of African-American origins, while his great-grandfathers were white slave owners from Kentucky. Mary Patterson was also of African-American as well as Native American descent. She was a pioneer, and studied at Oberlin College.
Hughes spent his childhood mostly in Lawrence, Kansas. After his grandmother passed away, however, Hughes lived for two years with his friends James and Mary Reed. Later, in his adolescence, he went to live with his mother, Carrie, and her second husband in Lincoln, Illinois. Eventually, they settled in Cleveland, Ohio, and Hughes gained admission to Lincoln’s grammar school. There he was nominated as a class poet and received an award. Hughes believed that he won this award due to rhythm of African-American life. While studying in Cleveland high school, he edited the yearbook, wrote for the school newspaper, and wrote his first piece of jazz poetry, “When Sue Wears Red.” After the completion of his high school education, Hughes started studying at Columbia University on the advice of his father, but left in 1921 because of a financial crisis and took up odd jobs. Somehow, he managed to get registered at Lincoln University again in 1928, and graduated in 1929.
Today, some biographers and academics assert that Hughes was homosexual because he used homosexual codes in his poems. However, others argue that the reason for using that writing style was the influence of Walt Whitman. Biographer Arnold Rampersad has concluded that Hughes was passive and asexual in sexual relationships, and showed love and respect for his fellow black men.
Hughes continued writing until his death. His health deteriorated suddenly when he was 65 due to prostate cancer surgery and he died on May 22, 1967.
Langston Hughes’s Works
Hughes published his first poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in 1921 in The Crisis. His first poetry book was “The Weary Blues,” which was published in 1926. Most of his poems were published in The Crisis. However, he published, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926 in another paper, The Nation. Besides poetry, Hughes published several short stories, plays, children’s books, and novels.
Langston Hughes’s Style and Popular Poems
In his writing style, particularly in poetry, Hughes used music, rhythm, and images which drew on his African-American literary heritage. He used jazz and blue styles for the structure and subjects of his poems. Hughes and his contemporaries had different aspirations and goals than that of a typical black middle class person. They criticized men such as W. E. B. Dubois for being too assimilationist, and also criticized skin-color prejudices within the black community. Hughes attempted to portray the “low-life” in his poetry. Readers of his work can find a lot of cadence, rhythm, and sound from jazz and blues music in his work, which is full of the themes of loneliness, despair, and humor. His popular poems include, “The Blues,” “Still Here,” “Walkers with the Dawn,” “Ardella,” “I too Sing America,” “Mother to Son,” Quiet Girl,” “Dream Deferred,” “Acceptance,” “April Rain Song,” “Democracy,” “Negro Dancers,” “My People,” and “Let America be America Again.”
More about Him
Hughes received several awards, fellowships, and honorary degrees. He won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, which permitted him to take a trip to Russia and Spain. He was awarded a fellowship by the Rosenwald Fund in 1941. Lincoln University awarded him an honorary doctorate of literature in 1941, and, in 1963, he received another honorary doctorate from Howard University.