Langston Hughes Essay

James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin on Feb. 1, 1902. Although he did not live there for long, he was always proud of his connection to the state. Until 1915 he lived in Lawrence, Kansas, close to the Missouri border. He had close relatives who lived in Kansas City, Missouri. But his link to Missouri ran deep into history. From his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, he learned much about the Kansas-Missouri border wars and their historic consequences for blacks especially. Her first husband had died fighting alongside John Brown at Harpers Ferry, and her second, Hughes’s grandfather, had also been a militant abolitionist. Such events cast a long shadow over Hughes as he grew up in increasingly segregated Lawrence. His rich career should be seen as his calculated response to the challenges of this history, but by the time of his death he clearly had made peace with Missouri. Elected a trustee of the Missouri Society of New York in 1963, he was proud to be part of a great literary tradition that includes Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, and Hughes’s good friend the poet Marianne Moore.

Hughes’s parents, James Nathaniel and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, met in Oklahoma. She was an aspiring actress and writer; his great goal was to be a lawyer and successful businessman. They were married in Guthrie, Oklahoma, but soon moved to Joplin when he found a promising job there. Being black, however, he found it virtually impossible to gain admission to the bar. When Langston was born, James was probably far away. His ambition took him first to Cuba and then to Mexico, where he found jobs commensurate with his talents and training. He lived in Mexico for the rest of his life. (He and his family barely missed the horror that struck Joplin in April 1903. A white mob stormed the city jail, lynched a black man accused of killing a policeman, and violently expelled many blacks from the town.)

Hughes saw little of his father after that. Materialistic and cold, as Langston saw him, James disapproved of his son’s passion for poetry and his sympathy for the black masses. Attempts at reconciliation in Mexico failed. They did not see one another after 1921.

Mainly Langston grew up in Lawrence, Kansas with Mary Langston. After her second husband’s death, the family fell into poverty. Langston’s mother was often away, searching for work. Hughes grew up a lonely child who came to believe less in people than in fiction and poetry. In 1915, when his grandmother died, he joined his mother and her second husband in Lincoln, Illinois. There he wrote his first poem. They moved next to Cleveland. He lived there from 1916 to 1920. Sometimes he lived alone, as his stepfather scrambled to find work. However, at the progressive Central High School he received a first-rate education. In the school magazine he published several poems and stories.

In 1921, funded reluctantly by his father, he entered Columbia University in New York, but left after a disillusioning year in search of freedom and literary inspiration. In 1921 he published in The Crisis his signature poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in his first appearance as a writer in a national magazine. Its opening line (“I’ve known rivers”) had come to him just as he was crossing the Mississippi at sunset on a train from Kansas into Missouri, going to join his father in Mexico. The four years after Columbia found him roaming the coast of Africa as a seaman, or working in Paris and in Washington–but always writing. In 1926, his first book, The Weary Blues, confirmed his status as a star of the Harlem Renaissance. That month, January, he also entered Lincoln University in Pennsylvania (his B.A. came in 1929). Also in 1926 The Nation magazine published his manifesto for younger black writers, the essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In 1930 he published his first novel, Not Without Laughter.

Politically, Hughes moved in the 1930s to the far left, as did many other Americans also pushed by the Great Depression. In 1931-1932 he toured the South and the West by car, taking his poetry to the people. In 1932 he joined a group of young blacks invited to the Soviet Union to make a movie about American race relations. The project collapsed, but he spent many months living in Moscow and also touring the Asian republics of the USSR. Returning to the US in 1933 via Japan and China, he lived in California for a year. In 1934, he published a hard hitting collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). Also in the 1930s he worked hard at writing plays. His tragedy about miscegenation, Mulatto, opened on Broadway in 1935. In 1936, still haunted by the Depression, he published his memorable political anthem “Let America Be America Again.” Often broke, he tried to work in Hollywood but found it demeaning to blacks.

In 1940 came an autobiography, The Big Sea. About this time Hughes found himself hunted because of radical poems he had published in the early 1930s, especially one (“Goodbye Christ”) about charlatans who exploit religious faith. Retreating, he turned to safer themes, including the nascent modern civil rights struggle. Attacks on him continued, however, culminating in a somewhat humiliating appearance in 1953 before Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communistic subcommittee. But by this time, by dint of hard work and his versatility, he had also enjoyed some success. In 1947, his work on the Broadway opera Street Scene enabled him to buy a modest townhouse in Harlem. He lived there for the rest of his life.

Hughes continued to publish books. They included more poetry but also another autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander; books for children, such as The First Book of Jazz and The First Book of Africa; histories such as Fight for Freedom, the story of the NAACP; various plays; and anthologies of African American and African writing. He pioneered the development of the gospel musical, notably his Black Nativity. In 1960, the NAACP awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Medal. He toured Africa on behalf of the U.S. State Department. He was still an active force when complications after surgery ended his life in a New York hospital on May 22, 1967.

Langston Hughes was arguably the premier poet of the black American experience, the most versatile of black writers, and one of the finest authors in American literature. Widespread academic attention to him began, fittingly, at a conference in 1983 organized in Joplin at Missouri Southern University, when Joplin reclaimed and celebrated him as a favorite son.

Arnold Rampersad
Stanford University