Langston Hughes had a five-decade career in which he wrote short stories, poems, plays, books for children, as well as newspaper columns, and novels. He is considered today as one of the, if not the, most important writer of the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most influential American poets and predecessors for modern black poets.
About Langston Hughes
- Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in February of 1901.
- His most famous poem is often cited as ‘Negro Speaks of Rivers‘.
- Langston Hughes became a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
- Hughes wrote poems, plays, stories, children’s books, and novels.
- Hughes died at 65 after complications from prostate surgery.
- Hughes initially went to engineering school.
- Hughes traveled to the Soviet Union and had a fascination with Communism.
- He also went to West Africa and throughout Europe.
- Hughes published his autobiography at 28 years old.
- His home is now a nationally registered landmark.
- ‘Negro Speaks of Rivers’ is often cited as Langston Hughes’ most famous poem and he only wrote it when he was seventeen years old. It is told from the perceptive of an old black man who has traveled the world and seen an incredible amount of history play out on riverbanks. He has seen everything from the building of the pyramids to Abraham Lincoln.
- ‘Montage of a Dream Deferred’, also commonly known as ‘Harlem’ is a book-length poem. The text speaks about the lives of Harlem residents who are not experiencing the “American Dream”, but instead are having their dreams deferred. The speaker questions the state of the world, where his dreams, and those of his neighbors, went.
- ‘I, Too, Sing America’ is one of the shortest poems on this list. In it, the speaker explores why he’s treated differently, as a black man, than others are. He looks to the future and presents the reader with a more hopeful vision of his life. At some point, he’s going to be treated as he deserves.
- ‘Mother to Son‘ was first published in December of 1922 in the magazine, Crisis. This incredibly moving poem uses the metaphor of a staircase, and the narrative voice of a mother, to describe for a young man the troubles ahead.
- ‘Let America Be America Again’ also focuses on the American dream. In the poem, Hughes speaker wonders if the idealized dream of America that he used to believe in even exists at all. It might be possible for it to return at some point, but not now. There is too much wrong with America for the “dream” to be a reality.
Explore 11 of the best Langston Hughes poems.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in February of 1901. His ancestry was a complicated one due to the fact that his paternal great-grandmothers were both enslaved and his great-grandfathers were slave owners. Hughes’s parents, James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Langston divorced soon after his birth. James left the family and traveled throughout South America. Hughes’ mother spent a great deal of time traveling, seeking out some form of employment. This meant that Hughes was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother.
Most of Hughes’ childhood was spent in Lawrence, Kansas. It was here his grandmother instilled in him pride for his race and deep care for those struggling around him. When his grandmother died he lived with family friends and then later with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois.
A short time later he was attending Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio. It is known that he began writing when he was very young. He was named the class poet in grammar school and in High School, he wrote for the newspaper. His first short stories, play, and poetry were formed during this time as well.
Hughes graduated from high school and traveled to Mexico where he lived with his father for a short time. It was his goal to acquire some kind of financial assistance, or at least support, for his further education at Columbia University. He intended to become a writer. Hughes’s father did not support his plan but after negotiation, he did receive some assistance.
While at Columbia he was an average student and became part of the Harlem Renaissance. This period was known for its explosion of artistic and intellectuality, centered around the African American community in Harlem, New York. He did not remain at Columbia long though, leaving in 1922 due to racial prejudice among the students and teachers.
In 1923 he spent six months on a ship traveling to West Africa and Europe, including Paris and England. Hughes returned to America in 1924 and moved in with his mother in Washington, D.C. He found employment as a personal assistant at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. The position proved to be too much of a time constraint on his writing and he quit working as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel.
Writing Career and Relationships
It was around this period of time that Hughes met the poet Vachel Lindsey who publicized his work. Up until this point, Hughes’ writing had only appeared in magazines. His first book, and collection, The Weary Blues, appeared soon after in 1926. This work won first prize in a literary magazine competition and supplied him with the scholarship he needed to continue his studies. It was followed by Fine Clothes to the Jew in 1927.
In 1924, Hughes met Carl van Vechten at a party he attended in Harlem. They kicked off a long-lasting intellectual relationship, corresponding via letters for over forty years. Van Vechten became one of his primary influences, helping Hughes on his path to literary greatness.
In 1926, Hughes produced one of his greatest pieces of work ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’. This essay was intended as a sincere depiction of the ups and downs of the lives of working-class black people in America during the 1920s. In the essay, Hughes expresses his indifference towards how white people viewed him “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs.”
Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University in Chester Country, Pennsylvania. It was known as a historically black university and he attended at the same time as the future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall.
Hughes completed his studies and graduated with a B.A. in 1929. At this point, he returned to New York and lived primarily in Harlem for the rest of his life. His first novel was published this same year titled, Not Without Laughter. The book was his first commercial success and validated his own beliefs in himself.
Throughout the 30s he traveled the United States lecturing. His first collection of short stories appeared in 1934. Two years later what is now his most popular poem, ‘Let American Be America Again’ was published in Esquire. It was focused on the disadvantages of the lower class and the hope of the American Dream.
In 1940, he published an autobiography of the first part of his life It was titled, The Big Sea. He was also working for the Chicago Defender writing about a comical character he named Jesse B. The decade also saw Hughes contribute lyrics to a Broadway musical and begin teaching creative writing at Atlanta University. At the beginning of 1951, he published ‘Harlem (What happens to a dream deferred?’).”
Langston Hughes died in May of 1967 in New York City from complications due to prostate cancer. His ashes were interred at the entrance of the Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Additionally, his home was registered as a historic landmark.
Influence from other Poets
Langston Hughes was notably influenced by writers such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman. As part of the Harlem Renaissance, he has served as a major influence on generations of poets who have come after him and looked to the movement for inspiration.
Jessie Fauset also played a vital role in nurturing the talent of Hughes, as she became a mentor for many up-and-coming black writers during the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the most notable of these were Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Anne Spencer.
Influence and relations with other poets weren’t always on the positive end. Langston Hughes did find some displeasure aimed towards him from up-and-coming writers as time moved on. As racial integration began to happen, there was a graduation of a new wave of black poets. Younger poets criticized Hughes for his outdated view of the societal landscape. Hughes himself lashed back at the new generation, and in particular James Baldwin, considering his work to be angry, prideless, and somewhat tasteless.
Langston Hughes FAQs
‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers‘ is arguably Langston Hughes’ most well-known poem from his collection of quality work. Even though Hughes was only in his teenage years when the poem was written, its excellent description of black cultural history is way beyond his years.
A powerful quote by Langston Hughes that has lasted the test of time is his quote about dreams. He says “Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.” One interpretation of the quote is that true happiness in life is not attainable without having goals, a purpose, or dreams, to aim for.
The Ways of the White Folk is one of Langston Hughes’ most celebrated collections of short stories. Published in 1934, it is a group of 14 short stories about the lives of black people colliding.
Langston Hughes was most popular, and in his literary prime, during the 1920s. He was a key part of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement that flowered many black intellectuals, poets, and novelists.
Langston Hughes was famous for his vital role in bringing the spotlight onto black poetry, novels, and other intellectual pursuits. During the 1920s he wrote a number of poems, short stories, novels, and essays that highlighted the African American experience, showcasing both the hardships and the joys of being part of black culture.