Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, the second child of school teacher Carrie (Caroline) Mercer Langston and her husband James Nathaniel Hughes (1871–1934). Both parents were mixed race, and Langston Hughes was of African American, European American and Native American descent. He grew up in a series of Midwestern small towns. Both his paternal and maternal great-grandmothers were African American, and both his paternal and maternal great-grandfathers were white: one of Scottish and one of Jewish descent. Hughes was named after both his father and his grand-uncle, John Mercer Langston who, in 1888, became the first African American to be elected to the United States Congress from Virginia. Hughes's maternal grandmother Mary Patterson was of African American, French, English and Native American descent. One of the first women to attend Oberlin College, she first married Lewis Sheridan Leary, also of mixed race. He joined the men in John Brown's Raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859 and died from his wounds.
In 1869 the widow Mary Patterson Leary married again, into the elite, politically active Langston family. Her second husband was Charles Henry Langston, of African American, Native American, and Euro-American ancestry. He and his younger brother John Mercer Langston worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society in 1858.
Charles Langston later moved to Kansas where he was active as an educator and activist for voting and rights for African Americans. Charles and Mary's daughter Caroline Mercer Langston was the mother of Langston Hughes. Hughes's father left his family and later divorced Carrie. He went to Cuba, and then Mexico, seeking to escape the enduring racism in the United States.
After the separation of his parents, while his mother travelled seeking employment, young Langston was raised mainly by his maternal grandmother Mary Patterson Langston in Lawrence, Kansas. Through the black American oral tradition and drawing from the activist experiences of her generation, Mary Langston instilled in the young Langston Hughes a lasting sense of racial pride. He spent most of childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. After the death of his grandmother, he went to live with family friends, James and Mary Reed, for two years. Because of the unstable early life, his childhood was not an entirely happy one, but it strongly influenced the poet he would become. Later, Hughes lived again with his mother Carrie in Lincoln, Illinois, who had remarried when he was still an adolescent, and eventually in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school. The Hughes' home in Cleveland was sold in foreclosure in 1918; the 2.5-story, wood-frame house on the city's east side was sold at a sheriff's auction in February for $16,667.
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, Hughes was elected class poet. Hughes stated in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm.
"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 as class poet."During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays. His first piece of jazz poetry, "When Sue Wears Red", was written while he was in high school. It was during this time that he discovered his love of books. From this early period in his life, Hughes would cite as influences on his poetry the American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg.
Hughes had a very poor relationship with his father. He lived with his father in Mexico for a brief period in 1919. Upon graduating from high school in June 1920, Hughes returned to Mexico to live with his father, hoping to convince him to support Langston's plan to attend Columbia University. Hughes later said that, prior to arriving in Mexico:
"I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much."Initially, his father had hoped for Hughes to attend a university abroad, and to study for a career in engineering. On these grounds, he was willing to provide financial assistance to his son but did not support his desire to be a writer. Eventually, Hughes and his father came to a compromise: Hughes would study engineering, so long as he could attend Columbia. His tuition provided, Hughes left his father after more than a year. While at Columbia in 1921, Hughes managed to maintain a B+ grade average. He left in 1922 because of racial prejudice, and his interests revolved more around the neighborhood of Harlem than his studies, though he continued writing poetry.
Hughes worked various odd jobs, before serving a brief tenure as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone in 1923, spending six months traveling to West Africa and Europe. In Europe, Hughes left the S.S. Malone for a temporary stay in Paris.
During his time in England in the early 1920s, Hughes became part of the black expatriate community. In November 1924, Hughes returned to the U. S. to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. Hughes worked at various odd jobs before gaining a white-collar job in 1925 as a personal assistant to the historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. As the work demands limited his time for writing, Hughes quit the position to work as a busboy in a hotel. There he encountered the poet Vachel Lindsay, with whom he shared some poems. Impressed with the poems, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a new black poet. By this time, Hughes's earlier work had been published in magazines and was about to be collected into his first book of poetry.
The following year, Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He joined the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, a black fraternal organization founded at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Thurgood Marshall, who later became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was an alumnus and classmate of Langston Hughes during his undergraduate studies at Lincoln University.
After Hughes earned a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929, he returned to New York. Except for travels to the Soviet Union and parts of the Caribbean, Hughes lived in Harlem as his primary home for the remainder of his life. During the 1930s, Hughes became a resident of Westfield, New Jersey.
Some academics and biographers today believe that Hughes was homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman. Hughes has cited him as an influence on his poetry. Hughes's story "Blessed Assurance" deals with a father's anger over his son's effeminacy and "queerness". To retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted.
Arnold Rampersad, the primary biographer of Hughes, determined that Hughes exhibited a preference for other African-American men in his work and life. However, Rampersad denies Hughes's homosexuality in his biography. Rampersad concludes that Hughes was probably asexual and passive in his sexual relationships. He did, however show a respect and love for his fellow black man (and woman). Other scholars argue for Hughes's homosexuality: his love of black men is evidenced in a number of reported unpublished poems to an alleged black male lover.
On May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer, at the age of 65. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer leading to the auditorium named for him within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The design on the floor covering his cremated remains is an African cosmogram titled Rivers. The title is taken from his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". Within the center of the cosmogram, above his ashes, is the line: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers".
Hughes's life has been depicted in many stage and film productions. Hannibal of the Alps by Michael Dinwiddie and Paper Armor by Eisa Davis are plays by African-American playwrights which deal with Hughes's sexuality. In the 1989 film, Looking for Langston, British filmmaker Isaac Julien claimed Hughes as a black gay icon — Julien thought that Hughes' sexuality had historically been ignored or downplayed. In the film Get on the Bus, directed by Spike Lee, a black gay character, played by Isaiah Washington, invokes the name of Hughes and punches a homophobic character while commenting, "This is for James Baldwin and Langston Hughes." Film portrayals of Hughes include Gary LeRoi Gray's role as a teenage Hughes in the 2003 short subject film Salvation (based on a portion of his autobiography The Big Sea) and Daniel Sunjata as Hughes in the 2004 film Brother to Brother. Hughes' Dream Harlem, a documentary by Jamal Joseph, examines Hughes' works and environment.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University holds the Langston Hughes papers (1862–1980) and the Langston Hughes collection (1924–1969) containing letters, manuscripts, personal items, photographs, clippings, artworks, and objects that document the life of Hughes. The Langston Hughes Memorial Library on the campus of Lincoln University, as well as at the James Weldon Johnson Collection within the Yale University also hold archives of Hughes' work.
Burial: Cremated, Ashes located under the floor, beneath an engraving of one of his famed poems within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes edited by Arnold Rampersad
Paperback: 736 pages
Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage classics ed edition (October 31, 1995)
Amazon: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes
"The ultimate book for both the dabbler and serious scholar--. [Hughes] is sumptuous and sharp, playful and sparse, grounded in an earthy music--. This book is a glorious revelation."--Boston Globe
Spanning five decades and comprising 868 poems (nearly 300 of which have never before appeared in book form), this magnificent volume is the definitive sampling of a writer who has been called the poet laureate of African America--and perhaps our greatest popular poet since Walt Whitman. Here, for the first time, are all the poems that Langston Hughes published during his lifetime, arranged in the general order in which he wrote them and annotated by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel.
Alongside such famous works as "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" and Montage of a Dream Deferred, The Collected Poems includes the author's lesser-known verse for children; topical poems distributed through the Associated Negro Press; and poems such as "Goodbye Christ" that were once suppressed. Lyrical and pungent, passionate and polemical, the result is a treasure of a book, the essential collection of a poet whose words have entered our common language.
The Big Sea: An Autobiography by Langston Hughes, introduction by Arnold Rampersad
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: Hill and Wang (August 1, 1993)
Amazon: The Big Sea: An Autobiography
Langston Hughes, born in 1902, came of age early in the 1920s. In The Big Sea he recounts those memorable years in the two great playgrounds of the decade--Harlem and Paris. In Paris he was a cook and waiter in nightclubs. He knew the musicians and dancers, the drunks and dope fiends. In Harlem he was a rising young poet--at the center of the "Harlem Renaissance."
Arnold Rampersad writes in his incisive new introduction to The Big Sea, an American classic:
"This is American writing at its best--simpler than Hemingway; as simple and direct as that of another Missouri-born writer...Mark Twain."
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