Langston Hughes — The Life, Times, Works as Well as Impact of a Versatile African-American Writer

Langston Hughes stands as a literary and cultural translation of the political resistance and campaign of black consciousness leaders such as Martin Luther King to restore the rights of the black citizenry thus fulfilling the ethos of the American dream, which is celebrated universally every year around February to April.

Hughes’ overriding sense of a social and cultural purpose tied to his sense of the past, the present and the future of black America commends his life and works as having much to learn from to inspire us to move forward and to inform and guide our steps as we move forward to create a great future.

Hughes is also significant since he seems to have conveniently spanned the genres: poetry, drama, novel and criticism leaving an indelible stamp on each. At 21 years of age he had published in all four (4) areas. For he always considered himself an artist in words who would venture into every single area of literary creativity, because there were readers for whom a story meant more than a poem or a song lyric meant more than a story and Hughes wanted to reach that individual and his kind.

But first and foremost, he considered himself a poet. He wanted to be a poet who could address himself to the concerns of his people in poems that could be read with no formal training or extensive literary background. In spite of this Hughes wrote and staged dozens of short stories, about a dozen books for children, a history of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured Peoples (NAACP), two volumes of autobiography, opera libretti, song lyrics and so on. Hughes was driven by a sheer confidence in his versatility and in the power of his craft.

Hughes» commitment to Africa was real and concretized in both words and deeds. The fact of his Negro-ness (though light-complexioned) has aroused in him a desire to challenge those from the other side of the color line that reject it:

My old man’s a white old man

And my old mother’s black

My old ma died in a fine big house

My mad died in a shack

I wonder where I’m gonna die

Being neither white nor black?

His search for his roots was given impetus when in 1923 Hughes met and heard Marcus Garvey exhort Negroes to go back to Africa to escape the wrath of the white man. Hughes then became one of the poets who thought they felt the beating of the jungle tom-toms in the Negroes’ pulse. Their verse took on a nostalgic mood, and some even imagined that they were infusing the rhythms of African dancing and music into their verse like we could sense in the reading of this poem: ‘Danse Africaine’:

The low beating of the tom toms,

The slow beating of the tom toms,

Low …slow

Slow …low —

Stirs your blood.


A night-veiled girl

Whirls softly into a

Circle of light.

Whirls softly …slowly,

Born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas and Lincoln, Illinois, before going to high school in Cleveland, Ohio in of which places, he was part of a small community of blacks to whom he was nevertheless profoundly attached from early in his life. Though descending from a distinguished family his infancy was disrupted by the separation of his parents not long after his birth. His father then emigrated to Mexico where he hoped to gain the success that had eluded him in America. The color of his skin, he had hoped, would be less of a consideration in determining his future in Mexico. There, he broke new ground. He gained success in business and lived the rest of his life there as a prosperous attorney and landowner.

In contrast, Hughes’ mother lived the transitory life common for black mothers often leaving her son in the care of her mother while searching for a job.

His maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, whose first husband had died at Harpers Ferry as a member of John Brown’s band, and whose second husband (Hughes’s grandfather) had also been a militant abolitionist. instilled in Hughes a sense of dedication most of all. Hughes lived successively with family friends, then various relatives in Kansas.

Another important family figure was John Mercer Langston, a brother of Hughes’s grandfather who was one of the best-known black Americans of the nineteenth century.

Hughes later joined his mother even though she was now with his new stepfather in Cleveland, Ohio. At the same time, Hughes struggled with a sense of desolation fostered by parental neglect. He himself recalled being driven early by his loneliness ‘to books, and the wonderful world in books.’ He became disillusioned with his father’s materialistic values and contemptuous belief that blacks, Mexicans and Indians were lazy and ignorant.

At Central High School Hughes excelled academically and in sports. He wrote poetry and short fiction for the school’s literary magazine and edited the school year book. He returned to Mexico where he taught English briefly and wrote poems and prose pieces for publication in The Crisis the magazine of the NAACP.

Aided by his father, he arrived in New York in 1921 ostensibly to attend Columbia University but really it was to see Harlem. One of his greatest poems, «The Negro Speaks of Rivers» had just been published in The Crisis. His talent was immediately spotted though he only lasted one year at Columbia where he did well but never felt comfortable.

On campus, he was subjected to bigotry. He was assigned the worst dormitory room because of his color. Classes in English literature were all he could endure. Instead of attending classes which he found boring he would frequent shows, lectures and readings sponsored by the American Socialist Society. It was then that he was first introduced to the laughter and pain, hunger and heartache of blues music. It was the night life and culture that lured him out of college. Those sweet sad blues songs captured for him the intense pain and yearning that he saw around him, and that he incorporated into such poems as «The Weary Blues».

To keep himself going as a poet and support his mother, Hughes served in turn as: a delivery boy for a florist; a vegetable farmer and a mess boy on a ship up the Hudson River. As part of a merchant steamer crew he sailed to Africa. He then traveled the same way to Europe, where he jumped Ship in Paris only to spend several months working in a night-club kitchen and then wandering off to Italy.

By 1924 his poetry which he had all along been working on showed the powerful influence of the blues and jazz. His poem «The Weary Blues» which best exemplifies this influence helped launch his career when it won first prize in the poetry section of the 1925 literary contest of Opportunity magazine and also won another literary prize in Crisis.

This landmark poem, the first of any poet to make use of that basic blues form is part of a volume of that same title whose entire collection reflects the frenzied atmosphere of Harlem nightlife. Most of its selections just as «The Weary Blues» approximate the phrasing and meter of blues music, a genre popularized in the early 1920s by rural and urban blacks. In it and such other pieces as «Jazzonia» Hughes evoked the frenzied hedonistic and glittering atmosphere of Harlem’s famous night-clubs. Poetry of social commentary such as «Mother to Son» show how hardened the blacks have to be to face the innumerable hurdles that they have to battle through in life.

Hughes’ earliest influences as a mature poet came interestingly from white poets. We have Walt Whitman the man who through his artistic violations of old conventions of poetry opened the boundaries of poetry to new forms like free verse. There is also the highly populist white German Émigré Carl Sandburg, who as Hughes’ » guiding star,» was decisive in leading him toward free verse and a radically democratic modernist aesthetic

But black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, a master of both dialect and standard verse, and Claude McKay, the black radical socialist an emigre from Jamaica who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry, stood for him as the embodiment of the cosmopolitan and yet racially confident and committed black poet Hughes hoped to be. He was also indebted to older black literary figures such as W.E.B. Dubois and James Weldon Johnson who admired his work and aided him. W.E.B. Dubois’ collection of Pan-Africanist essays Souls of Black Folks has markedly influenced many black writers like Hughes, Richard Wright and James Baldwin.

Such colour-affirmative images and sentiments as that in «people»: The night is beautiful,/So the faces of my people and in ‘Dream Variations: Night coming tenderly,/ Black like me. endeared his work to a wide range of African Americans, for whom he delighted in writing,.

Hughes had always shown his determination to experiment as a poet and not slavishly follow the tyranny of tight stanzaic forms and exact rhyme. He seemed, like Watt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, to prefer to write verse which captured the realities of American speech rather than «poetic diction», and with his ear especially attuned to the varieties of black American speech.

«Weary Blues» combines these various elements the common speech of ordinary people, jazz and blues music and the traditional forms of poetry adapted to the African American and American subjects. In his adaptation of traditional poetic forms first to jazz then to blues sometimes using dialect but in a way radically different from earlier writers, Hughes was well served by his early experimentation with a loose form of rhyme that frequently gave way to an inventively rhythmic free verse:

Ma an ma baby

Got two mo’ ways,

Two mo’ ways to do de buck!

Even more radical experimentation with the blues form led to his next collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew. Perhaps his finest single book of verse, including several ballads, Fine Clothes was also his least favourably welcomed.

Several reviewers in black newspapers and magazines were distressed by Hughes’ fearless and, ‘tasteless’ evocation of elements of lower-class black culture, including its sometimes raw eroticism, never before treated in serious poetry.

Hughes expressing his determination to write about such people and to experiment with blues and jazz wrote in his essay «The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.» Published in the Nation in 1926

‘We younger artists…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.’

Hughes expressed his determination to write fearlessly, shamelessly and unrepentantly about low-class black life and people inspite of opposition to that. He also exercised much freedom in experimenting with blues as well as jazz.

The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If they are not their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how and we stand on top of the mountains, free within ourselves.

With his espousal of such thoughts defending the freedom of the black writer Hughes became a beacon of light to younger writers who also wished to assert their right to explore and exploit allegedly degraded aspects of black people. He thus provided the movement with a manifesto by so skillfully arguing the need for both race pride and artistic independence in this his most memorable essay,

In 1926 Hughes returned to school in the historically black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania where he continued publishing poetry, short stories and essays in mainstream and black-oriented periodicals

In 1927 together with Zora Neal Hurston and other writers he founded Fire a literary journal devoted to African -American culture and aimed at destroying the older forms of black literature. The venture itself was short-lived. It was engulfed in fire along with its editorial offices.

Then a 70 — year old wealthy white patron entered his life. Charlotte Osgood Mason, who started directing virtually every aspect of Hughes’ life and art. Her passionate belief in parapsychology, intuition and folk culture was brought into supervising the writing of Hughes’ novel: Not Without Lauqhter in which his boyhood in Kansas is drawn to depict the life of a sensitive black child, Sandy, growing up in a representative, middle-class.mid-western African-American home.

Hughes’ relationship with Mason came to an explosive end in 1930. Hurt and baffled by Mason’s rejection, Hughes used money from a prize to spend several weeks recovering in Haiti. From the intense personal unhappiness and depression into which the break had sunk him.

Back in the U.S., Hughes made a sharp turn to the political left. His verses and essays were now being published in New Masses, a journal controlled by the Communist Party. Later that year he began touring.

The renaissance which was long over was replaced for Hughes by a sense of the need for political struggle and for an art that reflected this radical approach. But his career, unlike others then, easily survived the end of that movement. He kept on producing his art in keeping with his sense of himself as a thoroughly professional writer. He then published his first collections, the often acerbic and even embittered The Ways of White Folks.

Hughes’ main concern was now, the theatre. Mulatto, his drama of race-mixing and the South was the longest running play by an African American on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun appeared in the 1960’s. His dramas — comedies and ramas of domestic black American life, largely — were also popular with black audiences. Using such innovations as theatre-in-the-round and invoking audience participation, Hughes anticipated the work of later avant-garde dramatists like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez. In his drama Hughes combines urban dialogue, folk idioms, and a thematic emphasis on the dignity and strength of black Americans.

Hughes wrote other plays, including comedies such as Little Ham (1936) and a historical drama, Emperor of Haiti (1936) most of which were only moderate successes. In 1937 he spent several months in Europe, including a long stay in besieged Madrid. In 1938 he returned home to found the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don’t You Want to Be Free? employing several of his poems, vigorously blended black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation. The same year, a socialist organization published a pamphlet of his radical verse, «A New Song.»

With the start of World War II, Hughes returned to the political centre. The Big Sea, his first volume of his autobiography work with its memorable portrait of the renaissance and his African voyages written in an episodic, lightly comic style with virtually no mention of his leftist sympathies appeared.

In his book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) he once again sang the blues. On the other hand, this collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943), strongly attacked racial segregation.

In poetry, he revived his interest in some of his old themes and forms, as in Shakespeare in Harlem (1942).the South and West, taking poetry to the people. He read his poems in churches and in schools. He then sailed from New York for the Soviet Union. He was amongst a band of young African-Americans invited to take part in a film about American race relations.

This filmmaking venture, though unsuccessful, proved instrumental to enhancing his short story writing. For whilst in Moscow he was struck by the similarities between D. H. Lawrence’s character in a title story from his collection The Lovely Lady and Mrs Osgood Mason. Overwhelmed by the power of Lawrence’s stories, Hughes began writing short fiction of his. On his return to the U. S.. by 1933 he had sold three stories and had begun compiling his first collection.

Perhaps his finest literary achievement during the war came in writing a weekly column in the Chicago Defender from 1942 to 1952. the highlight of which was an offbeat Harlem character called Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, and his exchanges with a staid narrator in a neighborhood bar, where Simple commented on a variety of matters but mainly about race and racism. Simple became Hughes’s most celebrated and beloved fictional creation. and one of the freshest, most fascinating and enduring Negro characters in American fiction Jesse B Simple, is a Harlem Everyman, whose comic manner hardly obscured some of the serious themes raised by Hughes in relating Simple’s exploits in the quintessential «wise-fool’ whose experience and uneducated insights capture the frustrations of being black in America.. His honest and unsophisticated eye sees through the shallowness, hypocrisy and phoniness of white and black Americans alike. From his stool at Paddy’s Bar, in a delightful brand of English, Simple comments both wisely and hilariously on many things but principally on race and women.

His bebop-shaped poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (1991) projects a changing Harlem, fertile with humanity but in decline. In it, the drastically deteriorated state of Harlem in the 1950s is contrasted to the Harlem of the 20s. The exuberance of night-club life and the vitality of cultural renaissance has now gone. An urban ghetto plagued by poverty and crime has taken its place. A change in rhythm parallels the change in tone. The smooth patterns and gentle melancholy of blues music are replaced by the abrupt, fragmented structure of post-war jazz and bebop. Hughes was alert to what was happening in the African-American world and what was coming. This is why this volume of verse reflected so much the new and relatively new be-bop jazz rhythms that emphasized dissonance They thus reflected the new pressures that were straining the black communities in the cities of the North.

Hughes’ living much of his life in basements and attics brought much realism and humanity to his writing especially his short stories. He thus remained close to his vast public as he kept moving figuratively through the basements of the world where his life is thickest and where common people struggle to make their way. At the same time, writing in attics, he rose to the long perspective that enabled him to radiate a humanizing, beautifying, but still truthful light on what he saw.

Hughes’ short stories reflect his entire purpose as a writer. For his art was aimed at interpreting «the beauty of his own people,» which he felt they were taught either not to see or not to take pride in. In all his stories, his humanity, his faithful and artistic presentations of both racial and national truth — his successful mediation between the beauties and the terrors of life around him all shine out. Certain themes, technical excellencies or social insights loom out.

«Slave in the Block» for example, a simple but vivid tale reveals the lack of respect and even human communication, between Negroes and those patronizing and cosmetic whites.

Hughes also took time to write for children producing the successful Popo and Fifina (1932), a tale set in Haiti with Arna Bontemps. He eventually published a dozen children’s books, on subjects such as jazz, Africa, and the West Indies. Proud of his versatility, he also wrote a commissioned history of the NAACP and the text of a much praised pictorial history of black America The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), where he explicated photographs of Harlem by Roy DeCarava, which was judged masterful by reviewers, and confirmed Hughes’s reputation for an unrivaled command of the nuances of black urban culture.

Hughes’s suffered constant harassment about his ties to the Left. In vain he protested he had never been a Communist having severed all such links. In 1953 he was subjected to public humiliation at the hands of Senator Joseph McCarthy, when he was forced to appear in Washington, D.C., and testify officially about his politics. Hughes denied that he had ever been a communist but conceded that some of his radical verse had been ill-advised.

Hughes’s career hardly suffered from this. Within a short time McCarthy himself was discredited. Hughes now wrote at length in I Wonder as I Wander (1956), his much-admired second volume of autobiography. about his years in the Soviet Union. He became prosperous, although he always had to work hard for his measure of prosperity. In the 1950s he turned to the musical stage for success, as he sought to repeat his major success of the 1940s, when Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice had chosen him as the lyricist for their Street Scene (1947). This production was hailed as a breakthrough in the development of American opera; for Hughes, the apparently endless cycle of poverty into which he had been locked came to an end. He bought a home in Harlem.

By the end of his life Hughes was almost universally recognized as the most representative writer in the history of African American literature and also as probably the most original of all black American poets. He thus became the widely acknowledged «Poet Laureate» of the Negro Race!

According to Arnold Rampersad, an authority on Hughes:

Much of his work celebrated the beauty and dignity and Humanity of black Americans. Unlike other writers Hughes basked in the glow of the obviously high regard of his primary audience, African Americans. His poetry, with its original jazz and blues influence and its powerful democratic commitment, is almost certainly the most influential written by any person of African descent in this century. Certain of his poems; «Mother to Son» are virtual anthems of black American life and aspiration. His plays alone… could secure him a place in AfroAmerican literary history. His character Simple is the most memorable single figure to emerge from black journalism. ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ is timeless, «it seems as a statement of constant dilemma facing the young black artist, caught between the contending forces of black and white culture’

Liberated by the examples of Carl Sandburg’s free verse Hughes’ poetry has always aimed for utter directness and simplicity. In this regard, is the notion that he almost never revised his work seeming like romantic poets who believe and demonstrate that poetry is a ‘spontaneous overflow of emotions».

Like Walt Whitman, Hughes’s great poetic forefather in America’s poetry…, Hughes did believe in the poetry of Emotion, in the power of ideas and feelings that went beyond matters of technical crafts. Hughes never wanted to be a writer who carefully sculpted rhyme and stanzas and in so doing lost the emotional heart of what he had set out to say.

His poems imbued with the distinctive diction and cadences of Negro idioms in simple stanza patterns and strict rhyme schemes derived from blues songs enabled him to capture the ambience of the setting as well as the rhythms of jazz music.

He wrote mostly in two modes/directions:

(i) lyrics about black life using rhythms and refrains from jazz and


(ii) Poems of racial protest

exploring the boundaries between black and white America. thus contributing to the strengthening of black consciousness and racial pride than even the Harlem Renaissance’s legacy for its most militant decades. While never militantly repudiating co-operation with the white community, the poems which protest against white racism are boldly direct.

In «The Negro Speaks of Rivers» the simple direct and free verse makes clear that Africa’s dusky rivers run concurrently with the poet’s soul as he draws spiritual strength as well as individual identity from the collective experience of his ancestors. The poem is according to Rampersad «reminding us that the syncopated beat which the captive Africans brought with them «that found its first expression here in «the hand clapping, feet stamping, drum-beating rhythms of the human heart (4 — 5), is as ‘ancient as the world.»

But what Hughes is better known for is his treatment of the possibilities of African-American experiences and identities. Like Walt Whitman, he created a persona that speaks for more than himself. His voice in «I too» for instance absorbs the depiction of a whole race into his central consciousness as he laments:

I, too, sing America

I am the darker brother.

I, too, am America.

The «darker brother» celebrating America is certain of a better future when he will no longer be shunted aside by «company». The poem is characteristic of Hughes’s faith in the racial consciousness of African Americans, a consciousness that reflects their integrity and beauty while simultaneously demanding respect and acceptance from others as especially when: Nobody ‘/I dare Say to me, Eat in the kitchen.

This dogged resistance and optimism in facing adversity is what Hughes’ life centred on.thus enabling him to survive and achieve in spite of the obstacles facing him. as Rampersad affirms:.

‘Toughness was a major characteristic of Hughes’ life. For his life was hard. He certainly knew poverty and humiliation at the hands of people with far more power and money than he had and little respect for writers, especially poets. Through all his poverty and hurt, Hughes kept on a steady keel. He was a gentleman, a soft man in many ways, who was sympathetic and affectionate, but was tough to the core.

Hughes’s poetry reveals his hearty appetite for all humanity, his insistence on justice for all, and his faith in the transcendent possibilities of joy and hope that make room as he aspires in ‘I too’, for everyone at America’s table.

This deep love for all humanity is echoed in one of his poems: ‘My People» some lines of which were earlier referred to:

The night is beautiful,

so the faces of my people,

the stars are beautiful,

so the eyes of my people

Beautiful, also, is the sun

Beautiful also, are the souls of my people

Arnold Rampersad’s last word on Hughes’s humanity, is anchored on three essential attributes: his tenderness; generosity and his sense of humour.

Hughes was also tender. He was a man who lovse other people and was beloved. It was very hard to find anyone who had known him who would say a harsh thing about him. People who knew him could remember little that wasn’t pleasant of him. Evidently, he radiated joy and humanity and this was how he was remembered after his death.

He loved the company of people. He needed to have people around him. He needed them perhaps to counter the essential loneliness instilled in his soul from early in his life and out of which he made his literary art.

Hughes was a man of great generosity. He was generous to the young and the poor, the needy; he was generous even to his rivals. He was generous to a fault, giving to those who did not always deserve his kindness. But he was prepared to risk ingratitude in order to help younger artists in particular and young people in general.

Hughes was a man of laughter, although his laughter almost always came in the presence of tears or the threat of the surge of tears. The titles of his first novel Not Without Laughter and a collection of stories Laughing to Keep from Crying. indicate this. This was essentially how he believed life must be faced — with the knowledge of its inescapable loneliness and pain but with an awareness, too, of the therapy of laughter by which we assert the human in the face of circumstances. We must reach out to people, and one should not only have an astounding tolerance of life’s sufferings but should also exuberantly complete the happy aspect of life.

His sense of humour is again credited by a writer from Africa who was like Hughes also faced with fighting racial discrimination and deprivation, Ezekiel Mphahlele.

Here is a man with a boundless zest for life… He has an irrepressible sense of humour, and to meet him is to come face to face with the essence of human goodness. In spite of his literary success, he has earned himself the respect of young Negro writers, who never find him unwilling to help them along. And yet he is not condescending. Unlike most Negroes who become famous or prosperous and move to high-class residential areas, he has continued to live in Harlem, which is in sense a Negro ghetto, in a house which he purchased with money earned as lyricist for the Broadway musical Street Scene.

In explaining and illustrating the Negro condition in America as was his stated vocation, Hughes captured their joys, and the veiled weariness of their lives, the monotony of their jobs, and the veiled weariness of their songs. He accomplished this in poems remarkable not only for their directness and simplicity but for their economy, lucidity and wit. Whether he was writing poems of racial protest like «Harlem» and «Ballad of the Landlord» or poems of racial affirmation like’ Mother to Son’ and ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers,’ Hughes was able to find language and forms to express not only the pain of urban life but also its splendid vitality.

Further Reading:

Gates, Henry, Louis and Mc Kay Nellie, Y. (Gen. Ed) The Norton

Anthology of African American Literature, N.W. Norton & Co; New York & London 1997

Hughes, Langston, «The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain» 1926. Rpt

in Nathan Huggins ed. Voices from the Harlem Renaissance Oxford

University Press, New York, 1976

Mphahlele, Ezekiel, «Langston Hughes,» in Introduction to African

Literature (ed) Ulli Beier, Longman, London 1967

Rampersad, Arnold, The life of Langston Hughes Vol. 1 & 11 Oxford

University Press, N. York, 1986

Trotman, James, (ed), Langston Hughes: The Man, His Art and His

Continuing Influence Garland Publishing Inc. N.

York & London 1995

Black Literature Criticism

The Oxford Companion to African American Literature., Oxford University Press,.1997

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