65 Years of Langston Hughes: Remembering the Poet

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Taking place in Harlem, New York in the 1920’s, The Harlem Renaissance was a great time and era for the African-American community. It was a time where time where the African-Americans community can show their talents through music, poetry and any type of writing. The migration of blacks during and after WWI was the influence on this Artist Movement. African Americans had an intellectual and social breakthrough in which they were finally able to express themselves in the best way possible. People were digging into their roots and using that as a source of energy to be happy and rejoice. Numerous influential people arose during the Harlem Renaissance, they helped make a voice for African-American Community. One of those are American poet Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes was more than a poet he was also a social activist, novelist, & playwright. Moving from Missouri to New York where his career began as a young man. Some events as well as life adjustments influenced and shaped the way Langston Hughes composed his work. His work was primarily based off the feelings and prior knowledge he had on a topic.

Born in Joplin, Missouri on February, 1st, 1902 was James Mercer Langston Hughes, also known as simply Langston Hughes. Not too long after his birth, his parents were separated. Hughes father had moved to Mexico and his mother was constantly looking for employment hence, the reason behind her leaving for long periods of time. He was then raised by his grandmother Marry Patterson Langston in Kansas till he was 12. While in his grandmother care, she taught him about his history while helping build pride up about his race. After Hughes was then raised in Illinois by his mother and stepfather, then later moving to ohio. Hughes childhood was very active due to the amount of relocating he had to do. While attending public schools in Illinois, an interest in poetry sparked within him due to him being labeled “Class Poet”. In Ohio Hughes attended Central High School, where he wrote some poetry, short stories and plays. “When Sue Wears Red” was the first piece of jazz poetry written Hughes in high school. Writing for the school newspaper and editing the yearbook was also some things that he engaged in, in High School.

After graduating high school in 1920, Hughes went to go stay with his father in Mexico. While traveling there he composed “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. His motive behind going to his father whom he rarely saw was to hope he could convince his father to support his dream of attending Columbia University in New York City. His father wanted Hughes to attend school abroad and focus on a path of engineering, which he would willing finance Hughes education. But Hughes wanted to be become a writer, which his father did not support. After some time Hughes and his father came to an agreement that, he would study engineering as long as he could attend Columbia University and his father paid his tuition. While in school Langston Hughes had a series of jobs that did not relate to his interest for example an assistant cook, launderer and busboy. Hughes had managed to keep a B- average at Columbia University, but ending up leaving in 1922 due to the racial prejudice he encountered at school.

After traveling to Europe and working Hughes decided to come back to United States in November of 1924. He decided to live with his mother in Washington D.C. Working to earn money in hopes of going back to college, Hughes was employed as a hotel busboy. Even though the job was in the nation’s capital, it payed very low. He was uncomfortable and unhappy due to the racial tension that was very high. Despite the negative feelings he encountered Hughes was able to compose numerous poems which led to his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues. The Weary Blues one first prize in a literary competition in 1925. The Crisis magazine held a literary contest where two of Hughes work had been rewarded. This gained him recognition and also caught the attention of novelists and critic named Carl Van Vechten whom helped published the first volume of The Weary Blues in 1926.

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In 1925 Hughes had enrolled back into college and attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He was was a member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Hughes graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in 1929 and returned home to New York. By the time he graduated Hughes had helped launch the magazine Fire!!,1926 as well as as another book of poetry titled Fine Clothes to The Jew,1927. In 1930 the Novel Not Without Laughter written by Langston Hughes was published. This novel was influenced by some of the things he witnessed while growing up in Lawrence, Kansas. The novel won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes poems were influenced by racial justice and that’s what he then began to direct his poems to in the 1930s. He traveled to the south to publicly state his opinion on the Scottsboro Case. The Scottsboro case was were 13-21, 9 African-Americans males who were falsely accused of rapping two white women in Alabama. All but 2 of the nine males were sentenced to time in jail, one was given the death sentence. Langston Hughes felt as though this was was wrong and criticized the case. Hughes then traveled a lot to Haiti, Japan and the Soviet Union where he worked as a newspaper correspondent in 1937. Around this time he had written multiple short stories that was published in 1934, The Ways of White Folks.

Developing an interest in theater Hughes wrote his first play Mulatto, which opened up on broadway in 1935 by Martin Jones. Mulatto “ran for 11 months & 373 performances”. The play discussed father-son while also illustrating life in the south during the 1930s. Hughes also wrote several other plays throughout the 1930s. For example Little Ham(1936) which was a comedy and Emperor of Haiti(1936) which was a historical drama. Also working alongside Zora Neale Hurston on Mule Bone, a comedy that depicted the life of African-Americans in the 1930s. Majority of his plays did not gain as much success as Mulatto but they were still produced and performed. Not only did Hughes write poems but he also found theater companies. The Harlem Suitcase Theater was found in 1938 and an another theatre in Los Angeles in 1939. Don’t You Want You Be Free? was a drama play that was staged in The Harlem Suitcase Theater.

During WWII Hughes wrote the first volume of his autobiography The Big Sea in 1940. The autobiography written in a comical perspective. Another respected piece that he composed during the war was in Chicago Defender a weekly column founded in 1905 and had majority African-American readers. It began in 1942 and continued for 20 years with the main and favored character from harlem, Jesse B Semple or Simple. Semple mainly spoke on racial issues. This work grown to become one of Hughes most admired pieces. Over the course of three decades from 1932 Hughes continued gaining recognition and been given awards. Some awards that Hughes won were Spingarn Medal from the NAACP in 1960, Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, US & Canada in 1935 & the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction in 1954.

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