Langston Hughes

Learn more about the life of Langston Hughes, American poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
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American poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance
Birthplace: Joplin, MO
Education: Lincoln University, 1929

James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, MO, in 1902. After his parents divorced, Langston lived in several places in the Midwest. For a while he lived with his grandmother in Lawrence, KA. She told him stories about important Americans like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. DuBois.

As a boy, he was inspired by the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. After he graduated from high school, he wrote the poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," as he was crossing the Mississippi River on his way south to visit his father in Mexico. His poem was published in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

His father agreed to pay for his college education and Langston enrolled in Columbia University. Hughes was influenced by the music, dance, and intellectual life he experienced while living in Harlem. He quit school and was gaining recognition as part of the New Negro Renaissance. Hughes based his poetry on his folk heritage, blues, and jazz. He is known for his unique depiction of African-American life.

In 1923, Hughes couldn't find work and joined the crew on a ship bound for Africa. The ship stopped in ports all over the world. Hughes lived in Paris, Venice, and Genoa. Then, while working as a busboy at a hotel in Washington, DC, Vachel Lindsay "discovered" Hughes' poetry in 1925. As a result, he received a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. His first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926.

Hughes said that he wrote "to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America." Friends commented, "No one enjoyed being a Negro as much as Langston Hughes." Even though he experienced discrimination and was subjected to segregation, he worked for human rights. Through his newspaper character, Jesse B. Simple, Hughes was able to draw attention to racism in America.

Hughes won several prizes, awards, and fellowships, and he read his poetry all over the world. Langston Hughes died in 1967. A jazz band played at his funeral.

I've known river:
As ancient as the world and older than the flow of human
blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

–Written by Langston Hughes and dedicated to W. E. B. Du Bois

Related Resources

Selected Works by Langston Hughes
The Weary Blues, a collection of poetry (1926)
The Ways of White Folks, a collection of short stories (1934)
The Big Sea, an autobiography of his early life (1940)
I Wonder as I Wander, an autobiography (1956)
Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)
One-Way Ticket (1949)
A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956)
Selected Poems (1959)
The First Book of Negroes, books for children (1952)
Mulatto, a play (1935)
Not Without Laughter, a coming-of-age novel (1930)

Web Resources
The Academy of American Poets

Internet School Library Media Center Langston Hughes bibliography page

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