Langston Hughes (USA)
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. His father worked as a stenographer and his mother was an actress and home-bound poet. The family was poor and moved, over the years, to several cities in search of better employment and to escape racism. When his father left for Mexico, his mother took Hughes to live with her own mother, who had been married to a member of John Brown’s abolitionist group, and who was killed in the raid at Harper’s Ferry. Proud of her background, the grandmother shared numerous stories with her grandson. Upon her death, Langston moved to Lincoln, Illinois where he mother had remarried, her husband having his own son by his previous marriage. The new family eventually settled in Cleveland, where Langston attended high school.
He was, however, still drawn to his father and during the summer before his senior year traveled to Mexico to live with him. After graduation, he returned to Mexico, but during his visit it became apparent that his father disapproved of his desire to become a poet. Hughes, in fact, had been writing poems for some time, and was determined to follow writing as a career. His father paid for his tuition to Columbia if the son would take courses in engineering. But, despite a high grade point average, Langston dropped out after a year. In 1921 he published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” The poem was published in Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. The editor W. E. B. DuBois introduced him to Countee Cullen and other young poets of the period.
Enthused with the publication, Hughes continued writing, working at various odd jobs and then, working his way across the ocean on merchant ships, sailed twice to Europe and even to Africa. For a while he lived in France and Italy, and then returned to the United States, moving in with his mother, now located in Washington, D.C. The publication of another poem, “The Weary Blues,” brought him to the attention of other figures who would later become close friends, including the novelist Carl Van Vechten, who had introduced most the white society to Harlem.
In 1926 Knopf published Hughes’s The Weary Blues, which began a publishing career that would be extremely productive, ultimately making Hughes the most important literary voice of the Harlem Renaissance, and bringing him through his works in fiction, drama, autobiography and other forms, national and international attention.
He also traveled often, to Haiti, Russia, and the US west coast, often in support of so-called Leftist causes. Indeed, much of his most powerful poetry is devoted to social and political actions. During World War II, he wrote a regular newspaper column featuring a fictional Harlem character, Jesse B. Semple. And immediately after the war, collaborated with the German composer Kurt Weill, on an operatic version of Elmer Rice’s play, Street Scene, which received critical acclaim.
Hughes’ friendship with figures such as Whittaker Chambers (a former Communist agent, and later a fervent anti-communist who accused Alger Hiss of Communist involvement before Joseph McCarthy’s subcommittee on un-American activities) and poems such as “Good Morning Revolution” (of 1932) “One More ‘S’ in the USA” (of 1934) and “Chant for May Day” (1938) began to bring him to the attention of figures on the far right of this period. Hughes denied any actual Communist involvement and admitted his past radical ideas had been mistaken. But these issues would continue to haunt him until his death in 1967 of complications from prostate cancer.
What has been largely skirted as an issue by both readers and critics is Hughes’ purported homosexuality. Certainly, if was gay, he was necessarily highly closeted, particularly since he stood so strongly as a spokesman for black issues. But his lifetime friendships and relations with other gay and bisexual writers and figures such as Carl Van Vechten, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, Wallace Thurman and Noël Sullivan, seem to point to the probability. Many of his poems, moreover, can easily be read as statements of not only black longing and alienation but as expressions of homosexual desire and frustration. Poems such as “Joy,” “Desire,” “Port Town” and “Tell Me” contain what many see as homoerotic elements. Clearly, Hughes’s poetry—a poetry which is, after all, not formally complex, but a writing that depends on the social, political, and sexual issues it brings forth—will not be fully understood until there are further explorations into these issues.
BOOKS OF POETRY
The Weary Blues (New York: Knopf, 1926); Fine Clothes to a Jew (New York: Knopf, 1927); Dear Lovely Death (Amenia, New York: Trouthbeck Press); The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations (New York: Golden Stair Press, 1931); Scottsboro Limited (New York: Golden Stair Press, 1932); The Dream Keeper (New York: Knopf, 1932); A New Song (New York: International Workers Order, 1938); Shakespeare in Harlem (New York: Knopf, 1942); Jim Crow’s Last Stand (Atlanta: Negro Publication Society of America, 1943); Fields of Wonder (New York: Knopf, 1947); One Way Ticket (New York: Knopf, 1949); Montage of a Dream Deferred (New York: Holt, 1951); Langston Hughes Reader (New York: Braziller, 1958); Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1959); Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (New York: Knopf, 1961); The Panther and the Lash (New York: Knopf, 1967); The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Knopf, 1994)
For a performance of several poems, "The Weary Blues" by Hughes, click below:
For a poetry reading by Hughes from 1945, please click below:
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