Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was an American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, columnist, and activist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry.
Hughes was best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays and children’s books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice and celebrated African American culture, humor and spirituality.
When and where was Langston Hughes born?
Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He was the great-grandson of Charles Henry Langston, brother of John Mercer Langston, who was the first Black American to be elected to public office.
Here is a table summarizing key details about Langston Hughes’ birth:
|James Mercer Langston Hughes
|Date of Birth
|February 1, 1902
|Place of Birth
|Joplin, Missouri, United States
|James Nathaniel Hughes & Carrie Mercer Langston
What was Langston Hughes’ early life like?
Hughes had a difficult childhood. His parents separated shortly after his birth and he was raised primarily by his grandmother, Mary Langston. After his grandmother’s death, 12-year-old Hughes went to live with his mother and her new husband in Lincoln, Illinois.
In high school, Hughes developed his love for writing and literature. However, he faced racial discrimination from his classmates and teachers. He attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio and was elected class poet and editor of the school yearbook.
After graduating high school in 1920, Hughes spent the next year in Mexico with his father. During this time, Hughes published his first poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Crisis magazine.
Events in Langston Hughes’ early life:
- 1902: Born in Joplin, Missouri
- 1914: Raised by grandmother Mary Langston in Lawrence, Kansas
- 1916: Moved to live with mother in Lincoln, Illinois
- 1920: Graduated high school in Cleveland, Ohio
- 1921: Published first poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
What was Langston Hughes’ education and early career?
In 1921, Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in New York City. He left Columbia in 1922 and worked various odd jobs around New York while continuing to write poetry.
In November 1924, Hughes moved to Washington D.C. He wanted to attend Howard University, which he called the “Black Harvard of America.” His first book, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926 while he was still attending Howard.
After graduating from Howard in 1929, Hughes spent several years travelling and living abroad. Some key events:
- Traveled through Africa and Europe in 1923
- Lived in Paris in 1924 and met writers like Ernest Hemingway
- Attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania from 1926-1929
- Spent year in Cuba in 1930
- Lived in Carmel, California in 1931-1932
- Visited Soviet Union in 1932
- Lived in Japan and China in 1933
Langston Hughes’ Education and Early Career:
|Enrolled at Columbia University, NYC
|Left Columbia, worked odd jobs in Harlem
|Enrolled at Howard University, Washington D.C.
|Published first book The Weary Blues
|Graduated Howard University
|Extensive travels – Africa, Europe, Cuba, Soviet Union, Japan, China
What was Langston Hughes’ involvement in the Harlem Renaissance?
In the 1920s and 1930s, there was an explosion of Black literature, art and music in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City known as the Harlem Renaissance.
As a young writer living in Harlem during this time, Langston Hughes played a major role in the movement. Here are some key aspects of his Harlem Renaissance work:
- Published first poetry collection The Weary Blues in 1926
- Published essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in 1926
- Provided guidance and mentorship to rising Harlem writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, and Wallace Thurman
- Co-founded the Harlem Suitcase Theatre in 1930 to promote African American playwrights
- Published poetry collections that captured contemporary Harlem life like The Dream Keeper (1932) and The Ways of White Folks (1934)
- Had poetry widely published in influential Black periodicals like The Crisis and Opportunity
Langston Hughes gave an authentic literary voice to the experiences of everyday African Americans living in Harlem and nationwide. He brought the vibrancy of jazz music and African American vernacular into modernist poetry. Hughes contributed to the Harlem Renaissance’s mission of using art to champion racial justice.
What were Langston Hughes’ later career achievements?
Even after the end of the Harlem Renaissance in the mid-1930s, Langston Hughes had an extremely prolific literary career until his death in 1967. Some highlights include:
- Published autobiography The Big Sea in 1940
- Co-founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater in 1940 to showcase works by African American playwrights
- Wrote a popular column in the Chicago Defender newspaper from 1942 to 1962
- Published collections of poetry, short stories, plays, histories, and children’s books
- Reported as a war correspondent in China in 1937 and as a journalist in Africa in 1960
- Had plays performed on Broadway like Mulatto (1935) and Simply Heavenly (1957)
- Had works adapted for film, TV and musicals like Black Nativity
- Received recognition including Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, Spingarn Medal, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Even at the height of fame, Hughes continued writing prolifically and maintained connection to everyday African American life and culture. He covered topics of music, relationships, travel, history, spirituality, racism, poverty and social justice. Over his lifetime, Hughes likely wrote and published thousands of poems, articles, plays and other works.
Timeline of Later Career Highlights:
|Broadway play Mulatto
|Reported from China as war correspondent
|Published autobiography The Big Sea
|Wrote Chicago Defender column
|Poetry collection Fields of Wonder published
|Co-founded Harlem Suitcase Theater
|Honored by American Academy of Arts & Letters
|Published final poetry collection The Panther & the Lash
|Died in New York City at age 65
What were some of Langston Hughes’ major literary works?
Over his long career, Langston Hughes produced a prolific range of literary work. Some of his major publications included:
- Poetry collections – The Weary Blues (1926), Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (1931), The Dream Keeper (1932), Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)
- Novels & short stories – Not Without Laughter (1930 novel), The Ways of White Folks (short stories 1934), Laughing to Keep from Crying (short stories 1952)
- Plays – Mulatto (1935), Little Ham (1936), Emperor of Haiti (1936), Don’t You Want to Be Free? (1938), Simply Heavenly (1957)
- Non-fiction books – The Big Sea (autobiography 1940), Famous American Negroes (1954), I Wonder as I Wander (memoir 1956), Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (1962)
- Books for children – Popo and Fifina (1932), The Pasteboard Bandit (1950), First Book of Negroes (1952), The First Book of Jazz (1955), The First Book of Rhythms (1954), Black Misery (1969)
- Newspaper columns – Weekly column in The Chicago Defender 1942-1962
Langston Hughes was hailed as “Shakespeare in Harlem” for his diverse literary accomplishments spanning multiple genres and decades.
What were Langston Hughes’ major contributions and achievements?
Langston Hughes made invaluable cultural contributions over his 65-year life:
- Pioneer of jazz poetry – Hughes was one of the first writers to infuse jazz rhythms and African American vernacular speech into poetry. This innovative literary form deeply influenced later generations.
- Captured spirit of Harlem Renaissance – Through prolific poetry, plays, prose and mentorship, Hughes’ work encapsulated the energy and pride of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.
- Gave voice to Black America – Hughes’ writing across all genres captured the full range of authentic African American experiences – from music and dance to poverty and disenfranchisement.
What were Langston Hughes’ major contributions and achievements? (Continued)
- Championed social justice – Hughes was a vocal critic of racism and inequality. His writing called attention to Jim Crow laws, economic exploitation of Black workers, and ongoing civil rights struggles.
- Celebrated African American culture – Through affirming Black history, traditions, speech, music and stories, Hughes’ work instilled pride and hope during segregation.
- Inspired young Black writers – By mentoring Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen, Hughes motivated new generations of African American literature.
- Prolific and versatile writer – Hughes published extensively across all literary genres – poetry, plays, fiction, nonfiction, column-writing, children’s literature and more.
- International recognition – Hughes achieved fame worldwide as a leading voice of the African diaspora. He brought Black American culture to an international audience.
- Enduring literary legacy – Decades after his death, Hughes’ body of work continues to define the Harlem Renaissance and inspire artists across all creative disciplines.
In all his writing, Hughes affirmed the beauty, resilience, humor and humanity of Black life in America. He once summarized his poetic mission as “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America.” Langston Hughes succeeded tremendously in this mission over his prolific career.
What was Langston Hughes’ personal life?
Hughes never married or had children. He lived most of his adult life in Harlem as part of a vibrant social circle of artists and activists.
Hughes identified as gay in private but remained closeted publicly due to societal homophobia during his lifetime. He entered into a few long-term relationships, including with patron Charlotte Osgood Mason and expatriate artist Prentiss Taylor.
At Howard University, one of Hughes’ classmates was future Supreme Court Justice and civil rights champion Thurgood Marshall. They would maintain a life-long friendship.
Despite fame, Hughes preferred leading a low-key personal life focused on writing and social justice. He lived alone but had many friends, mentees, and proteges. Langston Hughes died in 1967 at 65 years old due to complications from prostate surgery. At his funeral in Harlem, over 2500 admirers celebrated his life and literary legacy.
When and how did Langston Hughes die?
Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 at the age of 65 in New York City. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer the previous year and underwent surgery for it in January 1967. Hughes died from complications after surgery.
In the days following his death, memorial services were held in New York and Harlem attended by thousands, including friends Duke Ellington, James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Hughes was cremated and his ashes buried beneath a cosmogram at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The cosmogram combines the signs of Libra (his astrological sign), the palm of Africa, and a mask of ancient Egypt.
Hughes specified in his will that his home at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem be preserved as a residency for rising Black writers and artists. After undergoing restoration in 2021, the brownstone home opened as the Langston Hughes House Museum.
Though gone physically, Hughes’ voice lives on powerfully through his poetry, wisdom and vision for justice. As he wrote in his famous poem “I, Too”: “Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes…Nobody’ll dare say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen’ then.”
What was Langston Hughes’ impact on American literature and culture?
Langston Hughes left an immense impact on American literature, Black culture and the broader American society that is still felt today:
- Revolutionized poetry – By incorporating jazz, blues, dialect, and Black oral traditions, Hughes pioneered a new poetic form that inspired many subsequent poets and musicians.
- Defining voice of Harlem Renaissance – More than any other writer, Hughes captured the spirit, excitement and cultural flowering of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance.
- Inspired young Black artists – By mentoring a rising generation of talents like Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes motivated new Black literary voices during the Harlem Renaissance and after.
- Unmatched prolific output – The sheer volume and diversity of literature Hughes produced, often publishing multiple books within a single year, enriched all genres.
- Mainstreamed African American stories – Hughes brought authentic Black history, perspectives and experiences from the margins to the mainstream.
- Promoted racial justice – Hughes consistently spotlighted issues of social inequality, economic exploitation, and the African American struggle for equal rights.
- Celebrated the beauty of Black culture – Hughes’ work affirmed the creativity, resilience and humanity of Black life amidst racism and oppression.
- Left lasting legacy – As one of America’s greatest writers, Hughes’ outsized contributions continue inspiring artists and social justice activists today.
Over six decades, Langston Hughes gifted America some of the most iconic writing of the 20th century. He ensured the stories, voices and experiences of African Americans would be forever interwoven into the nation’s cultural fabric.
What were some interesting facts about Langston Hughes?
- Grew up primarily in Lawrence, Kansas before moving to various cities
- Earned the nickname “Shakespeare in Harlem” as a rising young poet
- Held odd jobs as a busboy, cook, and sailor among others
- Published his first poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” at age 19
- Became involved in leftist organizations which later brought him trouble during the McCarthy era Red Scare
- From 1926-29 he traveled in West Africa, Europe and Cuba
- Reported as a war correspondent from Spain in 1937 and China in 1938
- Wrote a popular Chicago Defender column under alter ego Jesse B. Semple
- Had bachelors and masters degrees from Lincoln University and attended Columbia for a year
- Called his style of poetry “jazz poetry” and pioneer use of vernacular speech
- Had Harlem brownstone home preserved as a museum and arts residency
- Personally mentored writers like Ralph Ellison, Sterling Brown and Alice Walker
- Posthumously inducted into Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2014
- Featured on a United States postage stamp in 2002
- Had ashes buried under a cosmogram medallion mosaic at the Schomburg Center in Harlem
What is Langston Hughes’ legacy and influence today?
Even decades after his 1967 death, Langston Hughes’ legacy remains incredibly relevant and influential:
- Artistic influence – Hughes’ jazz poetry innovations directly inspired later musicians and poets. Many samples of his poems have appeared in hip-hop songs.
- Harlem Renaissance leader – As the most visible writer of the era, Hughes’ work defined and popularized the Harlem Renaissance.
- Inspiration for Black writers – Hughes’ literary success inspired generations of Black authors. Many, like Maya Angelou and Walter Dean Myers, cite him as a formative influence.
- Champion of social justice – Hughes’ critiques of racial and economic inequality still resonate strongly with ongoing civil rights struggles today.
- Celebration of Black culture – By highlighting the vibrance of Black literature, music and vernacular, Hughes set the stage for later multiculturalism.
- Accomplished crossover appeal – Hughes enjoyed fame among both Black and white intellectual circles, helping open doors for other minority writers.
- Enduring literary significance – As one of the most accomplished American poets and writers, Hughes’ work remains widely read, studied and loved.
- Cultural icon – Hughes’ outsized impact has cemented his reputation as an absolutely canonical Black writer within the American literary tradition.
Langston Hughes’ pioneering spirit of fusing arts, activism and racial pride created a singular legacy that inspires creative minds to this day.
In conclusion, Langston Hughes lived an incredibly impactful life as one of the 20th century’s greatest American writers, poets and social commentators. Born in 1902, he overcame an unstable childhood to become the leading voice of the Harlem Renaissance. Through legendary works of poetry, prose, plays and more, Hughes celebrated Black culture and campaigned for racial justice.
He pioneered the “jazz poetry” form, mentored rising talents like Zora Neale Hurston, and wrote prolifically up to his 1967 death. Hughes was the most visible literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance who captured the full vibrance of Black life. His calls for equality, anti-racism and human dignity remain timeless. Decades after his passing, Hughes’ prolific artistic output and cultural influence endure as strong as ever.
He represents a crucial thread in the fabric of American literature, music and civil rights history. Langston Hughes’ powerful works of social protest, racial pride and insight into the African American experience solidify him as one of the nation’s creative icons and conscience.
Frequently Asked Questions about Langston Hughes
Where is Langston Hughes from?
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. He moved around in his childhood, living with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas and his mother in Lincoln, Illinois. As an adult, Hughes became closely associated with Harlem, New York City.
What influences inspired Langston Hughes’ writing?
Hughes was inspired by the rhythm of blues and jazz music, as well as the everyday experiences of working-class African Americans. He pioneered a literary style incorporating black dialect, music, and oral traditions. Hughes was also heavily influenced by Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman.
When did Langston Hughes die and how old was he?
Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 at the age of 65. He passed away in New York City due to complications following prostate surgery. Over 2,500 people attended his Harlem funeral.
Why is Langston Hughes considered part of the Harlem Renaissance?
Though originally from the Midwest, Hughes spent most of his adult life in Harlem during the artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s-30s. More than any other writer, Hughes captured the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance through his prolific poetry, stories, plays and columns about Black life in America.
What awards and honors did Langston Hughes receive?
Some of the top awards Langston Hughes received include the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for lifetime achievement, the NAACP Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American, and election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has schools, theaters, and scholarships named in his honor.