February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967
Notable: Poet, playwright, novelist
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri to Carrie Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes. The couple had a son before Hughes but the child died as an infant. Hughes’ parents separated before he was born and they officially divorced when he was still fairly young.
Carrie was a mixed race light-skinned woman who had been raised within a family that embraced and took pride in its Black heritage. Hughes’ mother became a teacher after her dreams of becoming a performer were killed by the racist and sexist attitudes of the time. Hughes’ maternal grandfather was an entrepreneurial abolitionist while his uncle was a law professor and president of Howard University.
James, an attorney, was also of mixed ancestry. But it’s specifically noted that both of his grandfathers were slave traders. He was raised in an environment that taught him to hate his Blackness and Black people. James was a color-struck man who viewed Black people as being the cause of America’s racism.
The first few years of Hughes’ life were unstable due to the instability of his parents’ relationship. They moved around in search of work, breaking up and getting back together multiple times. His parents’ hostility towards each other led to his father denigrating Black people in his presence and his mother telling him that he looked like and was evil like his father.
Following his parents’ divorce, his father moved to Mexico while his mother, a teacher, moved around in search of work. Thus Hughes was sent to Lawrence, Kansas to live with his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston. While his grandmother’s home offered more stability, Hughes still had to contend with racism at school and elsewhere in town. But Hughes found solace in books and a sense of Black pride through his grandmother’s husband’s political connections and accomplishments.
Unfortunately, Hughes’ grandmother was almost 70 at the time of his birth and died when he was 13 years old. After her death, Hughes went to live with his mother and her second husband in Lincoln, Illinois and it was there that he first began writing poetry. The family moved to various towns before settling in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1920, Hughes’ mother and stepfather moved to Chicago with his younger brother but he remained in Cleveland on his own to complete high school.
Hughes joined his father in Mexico City but the arrangement only lasted for a year. In 1921, Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. Hughes arrived in New York during the period when Harlem was becoming the Black Mecca. He disliked the school experience but loved being surrounded by Black people and being immersed in the Black culture of Harlem.
The rest of the 1920s were a flurry of activity for Hughes. He first dropped out of Columbia and then spent two years traveling the world. His journeys included extended visits to Western Africa, France, Italy, and London. Upon returning to America, he joined his mother in Washington, D.C., and served as the personal assistant of Carter G. Woodson. He resumed his studies and completed a bachelor’s degree at Lincoln University.
Over the years, Hughes continued writing poetry. He had penned the iconic “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while in Mexico and contributed it to The Crisis magazine in 1920. The poem garnered a lot of attention for Hughes and served as an introduction to the creative scene of Harlem’s Renaissance. There he was supported and/or mentored by W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Phillip Randolph, Countee Cullen, and Alain Locke among others.
In the mid-1920s, Hughes met a fellow poet who helped him promote his work. He also came to the attention of a wealthy benefactor who provided financial support for many Black artists active in the Harlem Renaissance. The rest of the 1920s saw Hughes winning literary competitions and the scholarship that allowed him to attend Lincoln University.
He also published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues and his first novel Not Without Laughter. His first poetry book was so successful that Hughes was able to support himself working as just a writer. The novel won a Harmon Gold Medal for literature. In time, Hughes developed a style that came to be known as “jazz poetry”.
Hughes combined moments and topics from Black life with the then-avant-garde rhythms of jazz in what sounds like a precursor to spoken word. Throughout his writing career Hughes was criticized by Black and White literary critics for doing too much or too little. But writing for Black audiences, his poems and other creations resonated with everyday Black people.
The 1930s saw Hughes further expanding his views and writing through travel. Hughes journeyed through the South during Jim Crow and the turmoil over the Scottsboro Boys case. But he also got out of the country and visited the Soviet Union, Haiti, Japan, and China participating in lecture tours along the way. During the Spanish Civil War, Hughes worked as a correspondent for the “Baltimore Afro-American”.
Hughes returned to Harlem where he expanded beyond poems and novels to theater and movies. He wrote multiple plays some of which were produced for Broadway. But Hughes was unable to break into California’s film industry due to racism. Hughes continued to write and publish books into the 1950s, which included historical children’s books and young adult fiction.
On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died from prostate cancer in New York City. His presence in and love for Harlem was memorialized. Hughes’ ashes were interred beneath a floor medallion in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In 1981, his home on E127th Street in Harlem was declared a landmark and was added to the National Register of Places in 1982. East 127th Street was also renamed “Langston Hughes Place” in his honor.
- Als, Hilton. 2015. “The Elusive Langston Hughes.” The New Yorker. Conde Nast. February 16, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/sojourner.
- Biography.com Editors. 2021. “Langston Hughes.” Biography.Com. A&E Networks Television. January 29, 2021. https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/langston-hughes.
- The Editors Encyclopædia Britannica. 2023. “Langston Hughes.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. April 6, 2023. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Langston-Hughes.
- History.com Editors. 2023. “Langston Hughes – Career, Poems & Legacy.” History.Com. A&E Television Networks. January 24, 2023. https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/langston-hughes.
- “Langston Hughes.” n.d. Poets.Org. Academy of American Poets. Accessed May 17, 2023. https://poets.org/poet/langston-hughes. Summers, Martin. 2020. “Langston Hughes (1902-1967).” Blackpast.Org. February 2, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/hughes-langston-1902-1967/.
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