Monday, February 1, 2016

Langston Hughes—The Prophetic Poetic Voice of the Black Experience

Young Langston Hughes.

For many folks Langston Hughes is THE great African American Poet.  Certainly he was a break out star who won wide audiences among both Blacks and Whites with gritty yet lyrical poems that unflinchingly cast a light on the Black experience—and his personal experience—in America.  In doing so he opened the doors for others.


Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902.  The family home was shattered while he was still quite young by divorce and his father’s move to Mexico.  He was taken in by a grandmother who raised him until he was thirteen years old in Lawrence, Kansas.  His grandmother Mary was one of the first black women to graduate from Oberlin College.  Her first husband had been killed in John Browns’ Harper’s Ferry Raid.  He was raised in a cultured environment steeped in the Back experience.


At the age of 13 he moved to Lincoln, Illinois to rejoin his mother and her second husband.  While in school in Lincoln, Hughes had his first brush with verse when he was elected class poet because, as he recalled, “I was a victim of a stereotype.  There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry.  Well, everyone knows, except us, that All Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me…”


The family moved again, this time to Cleveland, Ohio where Hughes really became interested in writing and books.  He contributed to the school newspaper, edited the year book and began to contribute poetry, short stories, and plays to the literary journal.  By his senior year he had moved beyond conventional forms and was working on his first jazz poem.


After graduating from high school in 1920, Hughes went to live with his estranged father in Mexico.  It was not a happy experience because of their clashing visions of his future.  Eventually his father did agree to finance his education at Columbia University in New York City—but only if he majored in mining engineering.  Hughes reluctantly agreed with the proviso that he would keep writing.  

Hughes was thrilled with the vibrant life of Harlem, the Black neighborhood that bordered Columbia University.

He stayed and Columbia for about two years and maintained good grades.  On the other hand he was offended by the casual racism he encountered in the supposedly enlightened university setting.  He was more and more drawn to the vibrant Black life in the adjacent neighborhood of Harlem.


After dropping out of school, Hughes worked a series of menial jobs before signing on as a merchant seaman.  That got him to Europe where he left his ship to sojourn to Paris and then to England where he hooked up with a Black expatriate community.


On returning to the States he moved in with his mother in Washington, D.C. After more manual labor, he got a prestigious position as an assistant to historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.  But the long hours of academic drudgery interfered with his writing.  At this point he had several poems published in various journals including an auspicious debut in W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Crisis as early as 1921 and was preparing his first book.  He quit to work as a hotel bus boy to allow more time to write.


It was there he met the touring poet Vachel Lindsay who was so impressed by his work that he began promoting him publicly.

Hughes's publisher posed him in his bell boy uniform in this publicity photo in 1926.  Some consider it degrading.  But Hughes identified with the Black working class which was often ghettoized in menial job like this and had no shame proclaiming he was part of it.

That first book, The Weary Blues, was issued by Knopf, a top literary publisher, in 1926.  On the strength of the reception of the book and Lindsay’s promotion, Hughes was admitted to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.  He thrived at the traditionally Black school and graduated with a BA in 1929.


Hughes returned to Harlem, which would be his home, with some interruptions, most of the rest of his life.  From then on his output was prodigious, not only of poems.  In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won awards.  Four year later came his first collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks. Later he even found himself in Hollywood where he co-wrote the script for the 1939 release, Way Down South and tried to start a black theater troop.


In 1936 the poem destined to be his most famous, Let America be America Again was first published in Esquire Magazine.  Hughes revised the poem for publication two years later in a slender volume called A New Song issued by International Workers Order.


That was typical of his close association with the Communist Party and its publications through most of the ‘30’s.  That included a trip to the Soviet Union.  He would later deny ever having actually taken out Party membership because he would not subject himself to Party discipline—the same stance as other artists, notably Woody Guthrie.


Hughes was often at odds with the Black elite, who he regarded as assimilationist and over impressed with European culture in an attempt to “prove themselves worthy of white respect.”  He was proudly, defiantly not only Black, but working class.  Yet he also relied on the support of that class in his work and often had to tread lightly.


Which was why he kept his homosexuality a closely guarded secret, only hinted at in coded phrases of his published poetry. In some ways he modeled this on his poetic hero Walt Whitman, but Whitman had been able to be much more frank in his 19th Century work than Hughes was able to be in the 20th.  A minority of critics still deny that he was actively homosexual arguing that he was essentially asexual and passive.


Hughes on the steps of his Harlem home in 1958.

By the 1950’s and the era of the drive to end Segregation, Hughes found himself chastised for his “race chauvinism” by some Black critics.  Under the scrutiny of the House Un-American Activities Committee and the Red panic of the McCarthy Era, he also found that he had to distance himself from his most radical work, which caused the disdain of many former leftist associates.


The pendulum of acceptance in his community swung back in his direction with the rise of the Black Power Movement in the 1960’s which regarded him as a spiritual godfather.  Appreciative of the new support, Hughes was, however, critical of the rage and anger of many of the new Black Nationalist writers, which he believed kept them from seeing their own people through clear eyes and prevented them from coming to grips with practical measures.


He did support and mentor new writers who lived up to his exacting standards, including Alice Walker.


Hughes died of complications from surgery for stomach cancer on May 22, 1967.  His ashes were interred under the floor of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem under a medallion featuring words from his first Jazz poem, The Negro Speaks in Rivers first drafted while he was still in high school, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

The Negro Speaks in Rivers

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.

—Langston Hughes


  1. One of your best articles Patrick! It would have been so valuable to get to know Langston; he could have taught us much. Even with all of his challenges, he did well. I'd love to get to read "The Ways of White Folks".

  2. Valuable article. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. I am going to find a book of his.
    Donna J. Maher Mielzynski

  3. Hello,
    I found a YouTube channel with an emotional interpretation of Langston Hughes' poem, Negro.