Langston Hughes, poet and writer (LGBT History Month)
A celebrated poet and writer, Langston Hughes is one of the most significant voices to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. A major contributor to American literature, his legacy includes 25 published works. Bent Alaska presents his story as part of our celebration of LGBT History Month 2011, with thanks to the Equality Forum.
A celebrated poet and writer, Langston Hughes (born February 1, 1902
died May 22, 1967) is one of the most significant voices to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance. A major contributor to American literature, his legacy includes 25 published works.
Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. After his parents divorced, he moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where his grandmother raised him until her death. By the time he was 14, he had lived in nine cities with various families.
Hughes showed impressive literary aptitude. In eighth grade, he began writing poetry, short stories and plays and was elected “class poet.” His breakthrough poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published shortly after he graduated from high school.
In 1921, at the urging of his father, Hughes enrolled at Colombia University to study engineering. He left after two semesters due to racial discrimination. Over the next few years, Hughes worked odd jobs while pursuing a writing career. He traveled to Africa and Europe on the crew of a shipping vessel before moving to Washington, D.C. While employed as a busboy, Hughes met poet Vachel Lindsay, who helped promote his work.
In 1926, Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published. Well received by literary critics, it earned him a reputation as the country’s leading black poet. A year later, his second book of poetry, Fine Clothes to the Jews, was published. Heavily influenced by blues and jazz, his work portrayed life in black America and addressed racism and oppression. He continued to write and publish poetry throughout his life.
In 1929, Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, a historically black university in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where Thurgood Marshall, later a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a classmate. He later traveled to Haiti and to the Soviet Union, where he studied communist theory, but lived in Harlem as his primary home for the rest of his life.
His first novel, Not Without Laughter, about a black boy in 1920s rural Kansas, was published in 1930, and his first collection of short stories The Ways of White Folks, was published in 1934. He continued to write stories throughout his life, many of them featuring the character Jesse B. Semple, often referred to as “Simple,” a representation of the the every day black man in Harlem. He also wrote several works of nonfiction, plays and screenplays, and works for children.
In 1934, Hughes became head of the League for Negro Rights, the main African-American branch of the Communist Party. A victim of McCarthyism, he was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations in 1953.
Like most artists of his time, Hughes was not open about his sexuality. Literary scholars point to his poems “Joy,” “Desire”, “Cafe: 3 A.M.” (about police harassing “fairies”), “Waterfront Streets”, “Young Sailor”, “Trumpet Player”, “Tell Me”, “F.S.”, and some of the poems in Montage of a Dream Deferred as having gay themes; his short story “Blessed Assurance” deals with a father’s anger over his son’s effeminacy and “queerness.”
Hughes died at age 65 from prostate cancer. His ashes are memorialized in Harlem at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
Langston Hughes’ poem “Weary Blues” was one of 21 poems featured in short films in the Moving Poetry Series “Rant Rave Riff” by Four Seasons Productions. “Weary Blues” is spoken in the film by author and Harvard Professor Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan. Watch: