By Kali Henderson
Langston Hughes was a renowned playwright, novelist, and poet whose work is much celebrated, even today. He was part of the cohort of now-notable writers, jazz musicians, playwrights, and other artists that were the heart of the Harlem Renaissance. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” Hughes’ first published poem, is certainly one of his best-known poems and a staple in many classrooms from elementary school to university.
Born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902 to Caroline Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes, James Mercer Langston Hughes was the only child of this marriage. His father left the family, his marriage, and the U.S. due to the limited economic opportunities for Blacks in the U.S. As a result, Caroline was forced to search for employment, often in other towns, leaving young Langston in the care of her mother, Mary Patterson, in Lawrence, Kansas.
While living with his maternal grandmother, who refused to perform any manual labor or domestic tasks for whites, Langston experienced a lack of many basic necessities, including sufficient food. As an Oberlin College graduate, Mary was very proud and instilled this racial pride in her grandson. Although her pride limited her financial resources to provide for Langston, he found solace in books, as he recalled in The Big Sea, the autobiography of his early years. “Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world of books – where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas” (Hughes, 16).
After the death of Mary Patterson, Langston lived with friends of the family and intermittently with his mother. While living with her in Cleveland, Ohio, Langston was elected class poet in his high school. He recalled feeling the impetus for this title being the stereotype that Blacks are naturally rhythmic. But he also recognized he had a gift for poetry. He began to write poetry, stories and plays during high school. After graduation, Hughes visited his father in Mexico where James Hughes had achieved financial success. After convincing his father to pay for his college education, he attended Cornell University in 1920-1921. His real motive was to be closer to Harlem and he eventually dropped out of Cornell.
In 1921, when Hughes left Cornell, his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in the literary journal, The Crisis. While living in New York, Hughes worked closely with other writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Richard Bruce Nugent. A notable collaboration of these authors and others was the single-issue literary magazine, Fire!. The content of this magazine was heavily criticized for its focus upon provocative and unpopular subjects such as prostitution, homosexuality, and the life experiences of the lower classes. Black literary critics argued that these talented writers could contribute more by countering the prevailing negative depictions of blacks with more positive images of black culture.
Hughes continued to write about everyday “black folks” in his work, often using the dialect of the working-class blacks in his environs. Another collaboration, Mule Bone, was written with Zora Neale Hurston, the writing of which would cause an irreparable rift between the two. His writing reflected a profound respect and admiration for the everyday life and culture of black Americans during a period when it was not celebrated but berated.
During his time in New York City, Hughes determined that he wanted to see the world and so he took a job as a crewman on the S.S. Malone. He spent time working and traveling along the eastern coast of Africa and throughout Europe. While sleeping on a train ride in Europe, a thief stole his money and passport, leaving him stranded. He eventually worked his way back to the U.S. in 1924. He went to live with his mother in Washington, DC. While working as a busboy, he encountered Vachel Lindsey, whom some credit with “discovering” the young poet, Langston Hughes. It was shortly after this encounter with Lindsey that Hughes’ first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, was published. Hughes went on to complete his studies at Lincoln University in 1929.
The following year, Hughes first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published. A wealthy arts’ patron facilitated the writing of this novel but her expectations led Langston to reject her patronage and support himself with his writing. This patron wanted Langston to write Blacks as “primitive,” which he rejected wholeheartedly. He continued to write and started a theater company, New York Suitcase Theater, with Paul Peters, Whittaker Chambers and Jacob Burck in 1931.
Unlike many writers during this period, Hughes was able to achieve success in his lifetime and support himself through his craft. Hughes published 16 collections of poetry, 11 novels, 6 non-fiction books including 2 autobiographical texts, 12 plays, and 8 children’s books. He won numerous awards and honors during his life, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and honorary degrees from Howard University, Lincoln University, and Western Reserve University. But his success was not without controversy.
The Guggenheim Fellowship allowed Hughes to travel to Russia during a time of upheaval in that region. Upon his return, his politics became more radical and some accused him of being a Communist. His writings during this time reflected a more radical political stance that led to an investigation during the McCarthy era. He defended his radical outlook by refuting any connection with the Communist party and claiming his radical outlook had its origins in the experience of being black in America and its associated repression.
Another controversial aspect of Hughes’ life that played out after his death is the suggestion that Hughes was gay. During the years that he was active as a writer, from about 1926-1964, it was difficult for most writers to earn a living and certainly more so for a black writer. Many scholars and critics suggest that in an effort to prevent further difficulty for himself he led a closeted life. However, many of his poems could be interpreted as having homoerotic undertones, such as To Beauty. His writing clearly expresses admiration for the beauty of the black man and there have been men that have been tied to Hughes. Sunday Osuya, a Nigerian police officer, was one such man for whom Hughes made provisions in his will. Another man, Gilbert Price, has been romantically linked to Langston Hughes. There isn’t any concrete evidence that Hughes was gay but his associations with several men throughout his life show that it was a very, very strong possibility.
At the age of 65, James Mercer Langston Hughes died due to surgical complications. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture houses his ashes beneath the floor. This resting place is marked by an African cosmogram titled “Rivers” which is derived from his famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” He has been depicted and honored in various films such as Brother to Brother and Get on the Bus. He continues to be celebrated as a prolific American poet and playwright.
Hughes, Langston. 1993. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. New York City: Macmillan.
“The Life of Langston Hughes.” 2007. Retrieved on October 29, 2013. (http://lifeoflangstonhughes.blogspot.com/)
“Langston Hughes.” N.D. Retrieved on October 28, 2013. (http://www.poemhunter.com/langston-hughes/biography/).