Langston Hughes

From Academic Kids

Langston Hughes, photographed by , 1936
Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902May 22, 1967) was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist. He was born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, the son of a black woman named Carrie Langston Hughes and a white man named James Nathaniel Hughes, making him what was then called a mulatto, a racial makeup would have great influence on his life and work. He was raised mainly by his grandmother Mary Lanston. He began to write poetry when he was 13.

His childhood was not a very happy one, but one that later heavily influenced the poet he was to become. He lived with his mother, who had by then remarried, as an adolescent in Lincoln, Illinois; it was there that he discovered books. Upon graduating from high school in 1919, Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father. Severely unhappy, he often contemplated suicide.

Hughes spent a year attending Columbia University where he studied engineering. He left school and joined the Navy as a ship's steward, traveling to West and Central Africa and Europe.

Like many writers of the post-WWI era, such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Hughes spent time in Paris during the early 1920s. For most of 1924 he lived at 15 Rue de Nollet.

In November 1924 Hughes moved to Washington D.C. His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. In 1929 he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Hughes, who claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Hughes received a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929, and was awarded a Lit.D. in 1943. He taught at a number of colleges.

He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry. Much of his writing was inspired by blues and jazz, an example being "Montage of a Dream Deferred", from which a line was taken for the title of the play Raisin in the Sun.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Many of his poems are in the form of blues lyrics, such as the opening verse to "Po' Boy Blues":

When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world's turned cold.

Hughes' life and work were enormously influential for the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s. His poetry and fiction centered around the lives of blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music.</p>

Much of Hughes' poetry tries to capture the rhythms of blues music, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit. His published works through 1965 including nine volumes of poetry, eight of short stories and sketches, two novels, seven children's books, a number of plays, essays, and translations, and a two-volume autobiography. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961.

Hughes, like many black writers and artists of his time, was drawn to the promise of Socialism as an alternative to a segregated America. He traveled extensively to the Soviet Union, including parts usually closed to Westerners, and Central Asia. Hughes' poetry was frequently published in the CPUSA’s newspaper and was involved in initiatives supported by Communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys and support of the Spanish Republic. While involved in some Socialist and Communist organizations in the U.S., like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant. He signed a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin's purges. He joined the American Peace Mobilization in 1940 working to keep the U.S. from participating in WWII.

He was accused of being a Communist by many on the political Right, but he always denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote "it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept." He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Following his appearance, he distanced himself from Socialism and was rebuked by some on the Left.

Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in New York City in 1967, at the age of 65.


Kerry campaign slogan

Presidential candidate John Kerry selected the title of a 1938 poem by Hughes, "Let America be America again" as the slogan for his 2004 Presidential campaign. During a speech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Kerry said:

"Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said 'Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry' - something Pittsburgh knows about - 'for those whose plough in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again.' He was great."

Republican opponents cited Hughes' radical Communist and Socialist past in attacks on Kerry.

The poem contrasts American idealism with the reality for black people at that time::

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)

Quotations from other poems

I stay cool, and dig all jive,
That's the way I stay alive.
My motto, as I live and learn, is
Dig and be dug, in return.

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black........

"Mother to Son"

Well, son, I'll tell you: 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. But all the time I'se been a-climbin' on, And reachin' landin's, And turnin' corners, And sometimes goin' in the dark Where there ain't been no light. So boy, don't you turn back. Don't you set down on the steps 'Cause you finds it's kinder hard. Don't you fall now -- For I'se still goin', honey, I'se still climbin', And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

See also

External links

it:Langston Hughes


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