Missouri-born Langston Hughes used his poetry, novels, plays, and essays to champion his people and voice his concerns about race and social justice. He was a central figure of the flowering of African-American culture in 1920's and 30's known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes’s childhood was marked by poverty, the separation of his parents (his father emigrated to Mexico, where Hughes would later visit), a matriarchal, church-going education, and a nomadic series of moves. Eventually the young man arrived in New York City in 1921. There, with some money sent by his father, he enrolled in Columbia University, wrote his first verse, and began to publish in The Crisis, the historic magazine of the N.A.A.C.P., founded by W.E.B. Du Bois.
When funds for college dried up, Hughes moved to Harlem at the height of its golden era. For the remainder of the decade he would associate with all her prominent figures--Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, and Carl Van Vechten. He would receive patronage from the formidable but controlling Charlotte Mason, make voyages of self-discovery to Africa and Europe, and return to the United States with a freer, more confident vision of his own identity as an African-American, an artist, a leftist (he would later spend some time in Russia and answer for it during the McCarthy hearings), and a homosexual.
Hughes’s prolific literary career was launched in 1926 with a volume of jazz poems called The Weary Blues, written for performance with musical accompaniment in the famous Harlem clubs of the era. It captured both the Opportunity Prize and the prestigious Spingarn Award, and financed for Hughes the completion of his education, at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Among his many poetry collections, The Negro Mother (1931), The Dream Keeper (1932), and Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) argue passionately for his belief in human equality, his wish for color-blind brotherhood, and his growing disillusionment with the American dream. His novel Tambourines to Glory (1958) appeared as a musical play (1963), and his two volumes of autobiography, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, together with his essay about his involvement with the N.A.A.C.P. and the civil rights movement, “Fight for Freedom,” chart Hughes's long commitment to comradeship and equality. As those dreams began to bear fruit in the tumultuous 60's, Hughes was lionized with increasing frequency. He continued to devote his pen to the ideals of his youth, and took an increasing interest in the movement toward Afrocentric values for black Americans. Hailed as "the Negro Poet Laureate," Hughes died in his beloved Harlem on May 22, 1967.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Academy of American Poets