Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.
Note on Usage
In 1988, Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced Americans to adopt the usage of the phrase, "African American." The terms, "Negro," "colored," and "black" remained widely accepted in American English parlance at the time Langston Hughes was writing.
Early Life and Education
Born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, to James Nathaniel Hughes and Caroline Mercer Langston, Langston Hughes’ full name is James Mercer Langston Hughes. His parents separated when he was very young, and he was raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. About his early years, Hughes, in his autobiography, The Big Sea, explains,
My grandmother raised me until I was twelve years old. Sometimes I was with my mother, but not often. My mother and father had separated. And my mother, who worked, always traveled about a great deal, looking for a better job. When I first started to school, I was with my mother a while in Topeka. (And later, for a summer in Colorado, and another in Kansas City.) She was a stenographer for a colored lawyer in Topeka, named Mr. Guy. She rented a room near his office, downtown. So I went to a "white" school in the downtown district.
Hughes’ father had studied law and planned to practice, but Jim Crow laws prevented him from taking the bar exam. The elder Hughes then relocated to Mexico, where he not only was admitted to the bar, but he also became very successful through the practice of law. His financial success allowed him to became the owner of much property in Mexico City, and owned and resided on a huge ranch in the hills. He also became a money lender and foreclosed on mortgages.
About his father, Hughes has said, "my father was interested in making money to keep." This attitude contrasted with his mother and his step-father, who were interested in making money to spend. Thus, they were always relocating to take advantage of better employment.
Hughes graduated from Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920. He wanted to attend Columbia University and become a writer, but his father refused to pay for his son’s schooling unless he studied engineering. He started his university studies at Columbia but stayed for only a year. He found the racism at the school intolerable, so he left school and took a number of jobs to support himself.
In 1929, Hughes completed his university studies at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. The school pays tribute to their most famous graduate with a library named in his honor, Langston Hughes Memorial Library.
Langston Hughes opens his first autobiography, The Big Sea, with a melodramatic event: he is tossing into the ocean one by one all the books he had studied while at Columbia University. He had just hired on as a seaman with the large merchant ship, the S. S. Malone; he was twenty-one years old and determined that nothing would ever again happen to him that he did not want to happen. He was securing his own freedom with his little ritual of unloading the college books. In the life of Langston Hughes, one poetic act would lead on to others.
Four years before this momentous, liberating occasion, however, the poet had traveled to Mexico to visit his father to secure financial assistance for school. Langston reveals that his visits to in Mexico was mostly unpleasant; he could not identify with his father, who hated his own race of people, and who was interested only in making money. But Langston needed his father’s financial support, so he spent time with him in Mexico.
On this particular trip, the poet at age seventeen, wrote one of his most anthologizes poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." He gives the details of his inspiration for this poem in The Big Sea; he wrote the poem "just outside of St. Louis, as the train rolled toward Texas":
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It came about in this way. All day on the train I had been thinking about my father and his strong dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.
He then describes meeting a number of blacks who had come "up from the South" as he worked at one of his "happiest jobs" at a soda fountain. He enjoyed "hearing them talk, listening to the thunderclaps of their laughter, to their trouble, to their discussions of the war and the men who had gone to Europe from the Job Crow South, their complaints over the high rent. . . ." To Hughes, these people seem to be the "gayest and bravest people possible" as they worked "trying to get somewhere in the world."
Crossing the Mississippi at sunset, Hughes peered out of the Pullman window and saw "the great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South," and he started musing on "what the river, the old Mississippi, has meant to Negroes in the past." He remembers the tragedy of slaves being sold down the river as the "worst fate" that a slave could endure. He then mused on Abraham Lincoln having rafted on the Mississippi down to New Orleans. Lincoln had seen "slavery at it worse, and had decided within himself that it should be removed the American life."
Hughes’ mind in this creative reverie then turned to additional rivers that had affected the lives of members of his race: the Congo, the Niger, and the Nile. And then the thought came to him: "I’ve known rivers." He wrote down that line on an envelope that he carried in his pocket. Within the next fifteen minutes, he had composed his magnificent poem, which he titled, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
As one of the most important contributors to the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes has offered many poems to the American literary canon. A small sample his poems include "A Mother to Son," "Madame’s Calling Cards," "Theme for English B," "Night Funeral in Harlem," "Goodbye, Christ," and "Cross."
Supported Himself with His Writings
While most noted as a poet, Hughes managed to finish his college education after being awarded a full scholarship based on his proficiency as a poet. After receiving his B.A. degree in 1929, he continued to publish widely, earning for himself the achievement of being the first black writer to support himself as an adult solely on his writings.
In addition to poetry, which remained his first love, Hughes published three novels, Not without Laughter (1932), Scottsboro Limited (1932), and The Ways of White Folks (1934). In 1935, Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. The Gilpin Players (Karamu House) produced six of the poet’s play in 1936 and 1937. Hughes founded the Negro Theater in Los Angeles in 1939 and composed the script, "Way Down South."
Hughes published eight collection of his poems; he also published four books of fiction and six books for children and teens. He added three books of humor to his resume as well as two autobiographies. He also composed essays and a number of books on black history. As a prominent figure in the civil right movement, he lectured widely throughout the world.
Illness and Death
In 1967, at the Stuyvesant Polyclinic in New York City, Hughes underwent a surgical procedure to treat prostate cancer. The surgery was unsuccessful, and he died from complications arising from the operation.
Hughes’ body was cremated. His ashes remain at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, under the flooring of the foyer of the institute. The artwork on the flooring features a medallion of a human being formed by rivers and includes the line, "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," from the poet’s inspirational poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."
- Editors. "Langston Hughes: 1902–1967." Poetry Foundation. Accessed December 29, 2021.
- Langston Hughes. The Big Sea: An Autobiography. Thunder’s Mouth Press. New York. 1940. 1986. Print.
- Langston Hughes. I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. Thunder’s Mouth Press. New York. 1956. 1986. Print.
- Curators. The Langston Hughes Society. Horsham, Pennsylvania. Accessed December 29, 2021.
- Editors. "About the Library." Lincoln University. Accessed December 30, 2021.
- Editors. "Langston Hughes." Encyclopedia of Cleveland History: Case Western Reserve University. Accessed December 30, 2021.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes