As we celebrate Black History Month, we honor American poet, novelist, and playwright Langston Hughes, who was born today [Monday, February 1, 1902] in Joplin, Missouri.
Hughes is known as one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form of jazz poetry. His poetry was one of the main contributors to the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of African-American artistic revival in the Harlem section of Manhattan. This period was described by Hughes as a time when “the Negro was in vogue.”
Hughes’ parents split up shortly after his birth, with his father moving to Mexico. Hughes was raised mainly by his grandmother and when she passed, he went to live with his mother. It was at this time he began to write poetry. In his early teens he was introduced to Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, who he later cited as primary influences.
Langston Hughes published his first poem titled The Negro Speaks of Rivers in 1921 in The Crisis magazine. This famous poem was inspired by a visit to his father in Mexico. Upon his return to the United States, he attended Columbia University for one year and decided to leave the university to spend his time writing and traveling.
Hughes spent the next year working odd jobs in New York until he signed on as a steward on a freighter that took him to Africa and Spain. He left the ship in 1924 and lived in Paris, where he continued to publish his work and develop his style.
In November 1924, Hughes returned to the United States where he again worked a multitude of jobs. In 1925 while working as a busboy in Washington D.C., Hughes met poet Vachel Lindsay. This relationship was quite important to Hughes’ career and helped him to gain a wider audience.
In 1925, Hughes’ poetry book, The Weary Blues won first prize in the Opportunity Magazine literary contest. That year he also received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University. While at Lincoln, Hughes was able to meet Carl Van Vechten, who helped him get his novel The Weary Blues published by Knopf in 1926.
In 1927 Hughes published his second volume of poetry called Fine Clothes to the Jew and in 1929 he published his first novel, Not Without Laughter. The success of these two books were enough to convince Hughes to make his career as a writer. During the 1930s, Hughes began to tour the United States giving lectures. His travels also took him abroad to the Soviet Union, Haiti and Japan.
He continued to write and publish work and in 1934 he released his first novel of short stories, The Ways of White Folk. In 1937 he served as a war correspondent to the United States on the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Hughes published his first autobiography titled The Big Sea on the first 28 years of his life.
Over the next 20 years, Hughes continued to have an amazing career publishing a number of novels and countless poems. He died on March 22, 1967 from prostate cancer. His funeral was a tribute to his poetic career and was filled with jazz and blues music, which served as his main inspiration during his life. Hughes was cremated and his ashes were interred beneath the entrance to the Adam Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Hughes’ Harlem home received New York City landmark status in 1981 and was added to the National Register of Places in 1982. His work has been published and translated across the world.