“Hang yourself, poet, in your own words.
Otherwise, you are dead.”
Langston Hughes was one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance. He blended the literary freedom of American writers such as Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg with the rhythms of blues and jazz, and spoke honestly and profoundly about an unfamiliar America: an America of oppression, of poverty, of struggles, of racial hatred. But his writings did not only depict the hardships of African-American life, they also painted pictures of a group finding its own voice and place in a weird, expanding country that pretended they didn’t exist. The work of Langston Hughes brings forth a time and existence that is new to everybody who reads it, and breaks down barriers separating black and white.
Langston Hughes was born under the sign of Aquarius on February 1st, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His father left at an early age, and Langston was bounced through various Southern towns and cities. While living with a Grandmother he was introduced to The Crisis, an influential magazine edited by W.E.B. DuBois, and he was also taken to see Booker T. Washington give a speech.
Hughes’ literary career began formally after visiting his father, who was working as a farmer in Mexico. Though he had published in school newspapers, Langston found his literary voice while taking a ferry across the ancient Mississippi river. It was then, at 19, when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a touching poem conjuring up the images of his roots and heritage, and recognizing all the rivers of the world as one and the same.
- I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
“Rivers” was published in The Crisis which led Hughes to New York, attending Columbia University and meeting with W.E.B. DuBois and Countee Cullen. In 1922 Hughes left Columbia University and began working menial jobs around New York, while publishing his work in The Crisis. After witnessing the blues in a Harlem cabaret he wrote “The Weary Blues,” a definitive poem that captured the essence of Harlem in the image of a solitary piano player, playing his songs into the deep night.
After traveling to Africa one year (viewing with his eyes the unconscious memories found in “Rivers”), and Europe the next, Langston became part of the Renaissance in full swing in 1925. His poem “The Weary Blues” landed him a book deal, and he published a book of the same name in 1926. He met with the literati of Harlem, such as fellow writer Zora Neale Hurston, who he later tried to write a play with, though she abandoned the project due to ego clashes.
While Weary Blues was well received and praised, his next volume Fine Clothes to the Jew was criticized for being too harsh and negative. People were not willing to look at the darker side of African-American life, and some middle class African-American writers were not willing to be identified with the poor working class African-Americans. After publishing Fine Clothes to the Jew, Hughes would continue to write gritty and honest plays and poems, especially through the Great Depression of the 1930s. His poetry took on an increasingly political tone during this time, and his poems reflect an abandonment of the blues and jazz that influenced his earlier work, taking on a more straightforward and dry tone. His associations with radical political groups in Europe led to the FBI opening a file on Hughes, investigating him for alleged Communist activities. Poems such as One More S. in the USA and Ballads of Lenin probably didn’t help much.
During the 30s and 40s Hughes took the time to branch out into play writing and even musicals, such as Street Scene which would be produced many times in several different cities. He published an autobiography entitled Big Sea, which was somewhat overshadowed by the publication of Richard Wright’s classic novel Native Son. Hughes also started a series of humor columns starring his Harlem every man, Jess B. Semple, which was collected and published in several volumes.
With Montage of a Dream Deferred, Langston continued to explore his natural ability to combine musical elements into poetry. The collection swayed in and out of different themes, focusing on contemporary Harlem. It contains two of the best-known poems of Langston Hughes, Theme For English B and Harlem (2). It may be of some interest to see how Langston’s use of jazz rhythm and sound correlates to the work of the beats, specifically Jack Kerouac’s experimentation with what he called “spontaneous bop prosody.”
Hughes continued to work throughout his last years, publishing and reading. He recorded albums with jazz backing, read at the Newport Jazz Festival, and wrote a series of books for young children. He was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961, His last project was a collection called The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present, published in 1969. In this collection he chose to include the first published story by a young Alice Walker.
He entered a hospital on May 6th and underwent prostate surgery a few days later. He died May 22nd.