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Langston Hughes | Biography

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Family History

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, to Carrie Mercer Langston and James Hughes. Hughes lived in Lawrence, Kansas, from 1903 to 1915 with Mary Langston, his maternal grandmother. His earliest experiences with poverty and racism were balanced by his grandmother's stories of an illustrious family history. While her narrative began in slavery, the Langstons in the 19th century included educated men who achieved political success and became leaders of their communities. The details and the difficulties of his early life inspired his lifelong pursuit of racial equality, a theme that pervades most of his writing.

Hughes's first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), describes his family background. Hughes's maternal great-grandfather, Ralph Quarles, was a white plantation owner. Quarles left his estate to their three sons: Gideon, Charles, and John Langston. Because of antimiscegenation laws (laws prohibiting intimate relationships between people of different races) in Virginia, the children all bore their mother's surname.

Eventually, the brothers sold the plantation and moved to Ohio, where Gideon and Charles enrolled in Oberlin College. The fifth black man to graduate from Oberlin, John Langston was also the first African American attorney in Ohio despite being denied entry into law school. He studied law with an Ohio lawyer instead. An ambitious scholar, his later accomplishments varied. He founded the law school at Howard University in 1868 and was appointed U.S. minister to Haiti in 1877. He next became president of the Virginia Normal and College Institute, now Virginia State University, a historically black college that began in 1885 as a teacher training academy. In 1888, he ran for congressional office and was elected to the U.S. Congress as the representative from Virginia's fourth congressional district after 18 months of disputing the contested election.

Charles Langston was Langston Hughes's grandfather. After Oberlin, Charles became involved with the operations of the Underground Railroad. He was tried for violating the Fugitive Slave Law (a law requiring all escaped slaves to be returned to their masters upon capture) after aiding the escape of a slave. Charles saved himself at his trial by delivering a speech condemning the Fugitive Slave Law. He taught at the first public school for black children in Leavenworth, Kansas, and was principal of the only teachers' college for black people in the state. He married Mary Patterson Leary, who was also among the first black students at Oberlin, in 1869.

Meanwhile, Charles was active in Republican politics, "looking," as his grandson described him, "for a bigger freedom than the Emancipation Proclamation [the 1863 executive order that freed the slaves] had provided." He also served as president of the Colored Benevolent Society in Lawrence, Kansas, and Grand Master of the Masonic fraternity of Kansas. Mary and Charles's second child was Carrie Mercer Langston, the mother of Langston Hughes.

Carrie was involved in black cultural activities, including the Inter-State Literary Society, of which her father was one of the founders. Carrie read papers and occasionally her own poetry at meetings. She attended the University of Kansas for a time and married James Hughes. James, whose history was also biracial, was refused entrance to law school because of his race. Eventually, he got a law degree through correspondence courses, and moved to Mexico where he prospered.

Early Life, Education, and Travels

The Hughes' marriage did not last, and after a dismal year for Langston in an all-white public school in Topeka, Kansas—an experience the poet ranks as his first encounter with racism—Carrie brought him to live with her aging mother in Lawrence, Kansas. Langston lived with Mary Langston until he was 12, when she died. In Lawrence, despite the influence of his politically involved and loving grandmother, Langston endured racial prejudice and extreme poverty.

After the death of her husband, the Oberlin-educated and politically active Mary rejected the only jobs open to black women at the time. She survived by taking in boarders and occasionally renting out her whole house and living with friends. Still, she did not neglect the education of her grandson. Langston attended a talk by Booker T. Washington at the University of Kansas when he was very young. Mary, moreover, filled her grandson's head with stories not just of racial oppression but of the fight for freedom for black Americans, stories he never forgot. Inspired by crossing the Mississippi River while on a train journey, he composed "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" when he was only 18.

Hughes attended Columbia University in 1921, studying engineering to please his father who was paying his tuition. Finding the racism unbearable and engineering the wrong discipline for him, Langston left to travel, working on steamships with destinations in Europe and Africa. He returned to the United States, and with the aid of a patron he attended Lincoln University, graduating in 1929.

Hughes then lived in Moscow for a time, having been hired to act in a film on African American workers. He also worked in Spain as a news correspondent during the Spanish Civil War (1936–39). Although he rejected teaching as a profession, he was poet-in-residence at Atlanta University in 1947, moving to Harlem, New York, a short time later. In 1953 he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), Senator Joseph McCarthy's committee that investigated communist sympathizers. Although his defense before the committee was successful, Hughes was listed as a security risk until 1959.

Literary Production

During his travels in the 1920s, Hughes was already writing and publishing poetry in two African American periodicals, Opportunity and Crisis. The latter magazine published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in June of 1921. His first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. That same year, The Nation published "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." This important essay encouraged the black writer to be himself despite the hardships of racial prejudice. His first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), was a commercial success, enabling him to support himself. His growing reputation earned him the title of "the bard [poet] of Harlem."

Like many American writers caught in the Great Depression (1929–39), Hughes became interested in, but did not join, the Communist Party USA. After a visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, he produced a fair amount of radical political writing. He wrote for a newspaper, the Baltimore Afro-American, covering the Spanish Civil War in 1937. In the early 1940s he wrote screenplays and drama, and published an autobiography. In the 1950s and '60s he published anthologies for children and for adults: First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1955), and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). Never losing his focus on racial justice, he wrote poems derived from jazz, spirituals, and blues, affirming black speech and cultural forms. He also wrote operettas and plays, including one play, Mule Bone (1930), in collaboration with African American novelist Zora Neale Hurston.

Literary Output

Hughes's prodigious output includes poetry, radio and stage plays, short stories, novels, social protest, children's books, and critical essays.

Poetry

His best-known volumes of poetry include:

  • The Weary Blues (1926)
  • Fine Clothes for the Jew (1927)
  • Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
  • Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961)
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994)
Nonfiction

Hughes's tireless drive for racial equality is apparent in his published nonfiction. His purpose was to make African Americans familiar to everyone. This work includes two autobiographies, numerous biographies of black Americans, and works on black history:

  • The Big Sea (1940)
  • Famous American Negroes (1954)
  • Famous Negro Music Makers (1955)
  • I Wonder as I Wander (1956)
  • A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, with Milton Melzer (1956)
  • Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958)
  • Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962)
Fiction

His novels, short stories, plays, and opera include:

  • Not Without Laughter (1930)
  • Mule Bone, with Zora Neale Hurston (1931)
  • The Ways of White Folks (1934)
  • Mulatto (1935), an opera, renamed The Barrier in 1950
  • Emperor of Haiti (1936)
  • Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952)
  • Black Nativity (1961)
  • Jericho Jim-Crow (1964)

With Jericho Jim-Crow in particular, Hughes moved beyond the specificity of black life in America to a dream of integration. It is the work of a citizen of the world, whose passions and creativity embrace literary and musical genres based on the principal artistic forms of Western culture.

Death and Legacy

Although Hughes was not radical enough for a younger generation of black activists in the 1960s, he remained a revered international figure until his death in New York on May 22, 1967. He fulfilled his reputation as the bard of Harlem and enjoyed acclaim as a major American poet and political activist.

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