Langston Hughes | Poetry Foundation (2023)

Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that took place in the 1920s in a number of American cities, particularly Harlem. A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. Hesought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes. As he wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”

This approach was not without its critics. Much of Hughes’s early work was roundly criticized by many black intellectuals for portraying what they thought to be an unattractive view of black life. In his autobiographicalThe Big Sea,Hughes commented:

Fine Clothes to the Jew [Hughes’s second book] was well received by the literary magazines and the white press, but the Negro critics did not like it at all. The Pittsburgh Courier ran a big headline across the top of the page, LANGSTON HUGHES’ BOOK OF POEMS TRASH. The headline in the New York Amsterdam News was LANGSTON HUGHES THE SEWER DWELLER. The Chicago Whip characterized me as ‘the poet low- rate of Harlem.’ Others called the book a disgrace to the race, a return to the dialect tradition, and a parading of all our racial defects before the public. … The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. (And still are.) In anything that white people were likely to read, they wanted to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot—and only that foot.

(Video) "Democracy" by Langston Hughes

In fact, the titleFine Clothes to the Jew,which was misunderstood and disliked by many people, was derived from the Harlemites Hughes saw pawning their own clothing; most of the pawn shops and other stores in Harlem at that time were owned by Jewish people. Lindsay Patterson, a novelist who served as Hughes’s assistant, believed that Hughes was

critically, the most abused poet in America. … Serious white critics ignored him, less serious ones compared his poetry to Cassius Clay doggerel, and most black critics only grudgingly admired him. Some, like James Baldwin, were downright malicious about his poetic achievement. But long after Baldwin and the rest of us are gone, I suspect Hughes’ poetry will be blatantly around growing in stature until it is recognized for its genius. Hughes … was unashamedly black at a time when blackness was démodé. He had the wit and intelligence to explore the black human condition in a variety of depths, but his tastes and selectivity were not always accurate, and pressures to survive as a black writer in a white society (and it was a miracle that he did for so long) extracted an enormous creative toll.

Nevertheless, Hughes, more than any other black poet or writer, recorded faithfully the nuances of black life and its frustrations.
In Hughes’s own words, his poetry is about"workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street inWashington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent,hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July."

Hoyt W. Fuller commented that Hughes "chose to identify with plain black people… precisely because he saw more truth and profound significance in doing so. Perhaps in this he was inversely influenced by his father—who, frustrated by being the object of scorn in his native land, rejected his own people. Perhaps the poet’s reaction to his father’s flight from the Americanracial reality drove him to embrace it with extra fervor.” (Langston Hughes’s parents separated shortly after his birth and his father moved to Mexico. The elder Hughes came to feel a deep dislike and revulsion for other African-Americans.)

(Video) Langston Hughes Lecture 11 27 2018 YT

Although Hughes had trouble with both black and white critics, he was the first black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures. Part of the reason he was able to do this was the phenomenal acceptance and love he received from average black people. A reviewer forBlack Worldnoted in 1970: "Those whose prerogative it is to determine the rank of writers have never rated him highly, but if the weight of public response is any gauge then Langston Hughes stands at the apex of literary relevance among Black people. The poet occupies such a position in the memory of his people precisely because he recognized that ‘we possess within ourselves a great reservoir of physical and spiritual strength,’ and because he used his artistry to reflect this back to the people."

Hughes brought a varied and colorful background to his writing. Before he was 12 years old he had lived in six different American cities. When his first book was published, he had already been a truck farmer, cook, waiter, college graduate, sailor, and doorman at a nightclub in Paris, and had visited Mexico, West Africa, the Azores, the Canary Islands, Holland, France, and Italy. As David Littlejohn observed in hisBlack on White: A Critical Survey of Writing by American Negroes:"On the whole, Hughes’ creative life [was] as full, as varied, and as original as Picasso’s, a joyful, honest monument of a career. There [was] no noticeable sham in it, no pretension, no self-deceit; but a great, great deal of delight and smiling irresistible wit. If he seems for the moment upstaged by angrier men, by more complex artists, if ‘different views engage’ us, necessarily, at thistrying stage of the race war, he may well outlive them all, and still be there when it’s over. … Hughes’[greatness] seems to derive from his anonymous unity with his people. Heseemsto speak for millions, which is a tricky thing to do.

Hughes reached many people through his popular fictional character, Jesse B. Semple (shortened to Simple). Simple is a poor man who lives in Harlem, a kind of comic no-good, a stereotype Hughes turned to advantage. He tells his stories to Boyd, the foil in the stories who is a writer much like Hughes, in return for a drink. His tales of his troubles with work, women, money, and life in general often reveal, through their very simplicity, the problems of being a poor black man in a racist society. “White folks,” Simple once commented, “is the cause of a lot of inconvenience in my life.” Simple’s musings first appeared in 1942 in “From Here to Yonder,” a column Hughes wrote for theChicago Defenderand later for theNew York Post.According to a reviewer forKirkus Reviews,their original intent was “to convince black Americans to support the U.S. war effort.” They were later published in several volumes.

(Video) Harlem (1950) by Langston Hughes: Analysis & Commentary

A more recent collection, 1994’sThe Return of Simple,contains previously unpublished material but remains current in its themes, according to aPublishers Weeklycritic who noted Simple’s addressing of such issues as political correctness, children’s rights, and the racist undercurrent behind contraception and sterilization proposals. Donald C. Dickinson wrote in hisBio-Bibliography of Langston Hughesthat "[the] charm of Simple lies in his uninhibited pursuit of those two universal goals, understanding and security.As with most other humans, he usually fails to achieveeither of these goals and sometimes once achieved they disappoint him. … Simple has a tough resilience, however, that won’t allow him to brood over a failure very long. … Simple is a well-developed character, both believable and lovable. The situations he meets and discusses are so true to life everyone may enter the fun."

A reviewer forBlack World commented on the popularity of Simple: “The people responded. Simple lived in a world they knew, suffered their pangs, experienced their joys, reasoned in their way, talked their talk, dreamed their dreams, laughed their laughs, voiced their fears—and all the while underneath, he affirmed the wisdom which anchored at the base of their lives.” Hoyt W. Fuller believed that, like Simple, "the key to Langston Hughes … was the poet’s deceptive andprofoundsimplicity. Profound because it was both willed and ineffable, because some intuitive sense even at the beginning of his adulthood taught him thathumanity was of the essence and that it existed undiminished in all shapes, sizes, colors and conditions. Violations of that humanity offended his unshakable conviction that mankind is possessed of the divinity of God."

It was Hughes’s belief in humanity and his hope for a world in which people could sanely and with understanding live together that led to his decline in popularity in the racially turbulent latter years of his life. Unlike younger and more militant writers, Hughes never lost his conviction that “mostpeople are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.” ReviewingThe Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our TimesinPoetry,Laurence Lieberman recognized that Hughes’s “sensibility [had] kept pace with the times,” but he criticized his lack of a personal political stance. “Regrettably, in different poems, he is fatally prone to sympathize with starkly antithetical politics of race,” Lieberman commented. “A reader can appreciate his catholicity, his tolerance of all the rival—and mutually hostile—views of his outspoken compatriots, from Martin Luther King to Stokely Carmichael, but we are tempted to ask, what are Hughes’ politics? And if he has none, why not? The age demands intellectual commitment from its spokesmen. A poetry whose chief claim on our attention is moral, rather than aesthetic, must take sides politically.”

(Video) 5 Poems by Langston Hughes

Hughes’s position in the American literary scene seems to be secure. David Littlejohn wrote that Hughes is "the one sure Negro classic, more certain of permanence than even Baldwin or Ellison or Wright. … His voice is as sure, his manner as original, his position as secure as, sayEdwin Arlington Robinson’s orRobinson Jeffers’. …By molding his verse always on the sounds of Negro talk, the rhythms of Negro music, by retaining his own keen honesty and directness, his poetic sense and ironic intelligence, he maintained through four decades a readable newness distinctly his own."

The BlockandThe Sweet and Sour Animal Bookare posthumously published collections of Hughes’s poetry for children that position his words against a backdrop of visual art.The Blockpairs Hughes’s poems with a series of six collages by Romare Bearden that bear the book’s title.The Sweet and Sour Animal Bookcontains previously unpublished and repeatedly rejected poetry of Hughes from the 1930s. Here, the editors have combined it with the artwork of elementary school children at the Harlem School of the Arts. The results, noted Veronica Chambers in theNew York Times Book Review,“reflect Hughes’s childlike wonder as well as his sense of humor.” Chambers also commented on the rhythms of Hughes’s words, noting that “children love a good rhyme” and that Hughes gave them “just a simple but seductive taste of the blues.” Hughes’s poems have been translated into German, French, Spanish, Russian, Yiddish, and Czech; many of them have been set to music.

Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction toModern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essaysthat Hughes

(Video) Mother to Son by Langston Hughes - Narration by Viola Davis

has perhaps the greatest reputation (worldwide) that any black writer has ever had. Hughes differed from most of his predecessors among black poets, and (until recently) from those who followed him as well, in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read. He has been, unlike most nonblack poets other thanWalt Whitman,Vachel Lindsay, andCarl Sandburg, a poet of the people. … Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.

Hughes died on May 22, 1967, due to complications from prostate cancer.

FAQs

Why was Langston Hughes so important? ›

Through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children's books, he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality.

What is Langston Hughes's most famous poem? ›

Perhaps his most notable work, “Harlem” — which starts with the line “What happens to a dream deferred?” — was actually conceived as part of a book-length poem, Montage of Dream Deferred.

What are 3 accomplishments of Langston Hughes? ›

Langston Hughes' Major Accomplishments:

1926: Hughes won the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Prize. 1935: Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which helped fund his travel to Spain and Russia. 1941: Hughes was awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund.

What did Langston Hughes do as a social activist? ›

Langston Hughes: Jazz Poet, Social Activist — American Historical Theatre. Langston Hughes was a poet who utilized the American language, music, slang and religious views to educate the world about African American lifestyles during the Harlem Renaissance.

What are 10 facts about Langston Hughes? ›

15 Langston Hughes Facts: His Life & Accomplishments
  • Innovator of Jazz Poetry. ...
  • Controversial Birth Year. ...
  • Poet of the People. ...
  • Reporter for the Chicago Defender. ...
  • Newspaper Correspondent During the Spanish Civil War. ...
  • Award-Winning Writer. ...
  • Studied Engineering. ...
  • Never Married.

How did Langston Hughes start his career? ›

Langston Hughes published his first poem in 1921. He attended Columbia University, but left after one year to travel. A leading light of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes published his first book in 1926. He went on to write countless works of poetry, prose and plays, as well as a popular column for the Chicago Defender.

What is Langston Hughes famous quote? ›

Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.

Who was the most important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance and why? ›

Langston Hughes (1901-1967)

As the most influential and widely celebrated voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes also wrote essays, novels, short stories and plays, all of which centered and celebrated Black life and pride in African American heritage.

Did Langston Hughes go to college? ›

Langston Hughes

What was Langston Hughes legacy? ›

Hughes wrote poetry, short stories, plays, newspaper columns, children's books, and pictorial histories. He also edited several volumes of prose and fiction by Afrcan-American and African writers.

Where was Langston Hughes raised? ›

His parents divorced shortly after he was born, and his father moved to Mexico. His mother traveled for work so Hughes spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas where he was raised by his grandmother.

What did Langston Hughes believe in? ›

A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.

Why was the Harlem Renaissance important? ›

Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

What was Langston Hughes role at the Chicago Defender? ›

He has been referred to as the "Dean of Black Letters" and the "poet low-rate of Harlem." But it was as a columnist for the famous African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender that Hughes chronicled the hopes and despair of his people.

Who was Langston Hughes inspired by? ›

Hughes, who claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties.

What honor did Harlem bestow on Hughes after his death? ›

He was awarded honorary degrees by Lincoln University, Howard University, and Western Reserve University. After his death, the City College of New York began awarding an annual Langston Hughes Medal to an influential and engaging Black writer.

Where did Langston Hughes get his education? ›

Langston Hughes

What was Langston Hughes poems about? ›

Langston Hughes

Which part of New York did Hughes spend most of his life in? ›

HARLEM, New York City (WABC) -- Langston Hughes was one of the foremost figures of the Harlem Renaissance, where he lived in a brownstone for the last 20 years of his life. Hughes lived in the house on East 127th Street from 1947 to 1967.

Why did Langston Hughes became a writer? ›

While on a train to Mexico to visit his father, who had the money to pay his college tuition, Hughes was seized by inspiration to write what would become his earliest acclaimed poem.

What obstacles did Langston Hughes face? ›

Langston Hughes had many obstacles to overcome in his lifetime. One being that he was black and another was his being a homosexual during a time that something like this was NOT accepted. In his short story Blessed Assurance, he speaks of his father's anger towards him for being gay.

Did Langston Hughes get married? ›

Langston Hughes sometimes went out with women, but he never married. People who have studied his life and poetry are sure that he was homosexual. In the 1930s it was harder to be open about being gay than it is nowadays.

Where can I watch Looking for Langston? ›

Looking For Langston on Vimeo.

What did Langston Hughes say about America? ›

I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years. That's made America the land it has become. To build a "homeland of the free."

What is Emily Dickinson most famous quote? ›

1. “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.

What happened between Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes? ›

The copyright dispute, which arose between Zora Hurston and Langston Hughes, broke the intimate friendship of these two writers and possibly their long and productive partnership. It occurred when they were working on a play called Mule Bone, which was a comedy about the life of African-Americans.

Who founded the Harlem Renaissance? ›

Marcus Garvey

In 1914, Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), later making Liberty Hall in Harlem its headquarters. By the 1920s, the UNIA had over 700 chapters across America and Garvey commanded influence.

Who played a major role in founding the naacp? ›

Our founders

Henry Moscowitz issued a call for a meeting to discuss racial justice. Some 60 people, seven of whom were African American (including W. E. B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell), signed the call, which was released on the centennial of Lincoln's birth.

What was Langston Hughes legacy? ›

Hughes wrote poetry, short stories, plays, newspaper columns, children's books, and pictorial histories. He also edited several volumes of prose and fiction by Afrcan-American and African writers.

How Langston Hughes influenced writers today? ›

While an absolute staple of poetry education, Hughes has had a massive influence on writers. For example, Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream Speech” was partially inspired by Langston Hughes's poem “Dream Deferred.” W. Jason Miller noticed this deep connection between the two writers.

Who did Langston Hughes inspire? ›

“I have a dream.” You've heard the line. But what you may not know is that the poetry of Langston Hughes, born on this day in 1902, influenced King's sermons on a fundamental level and helped give rise to the preacher's most lasting line.

Why was the Harlem Renaissance important? ›

Most importantly, the Harlem Renaissance instilled in African Americans across the country a new spirit of self-determination and pride, a new social consciousness, and a new commitment to political activism, all of which would provide a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

What is Langston Hughes famous quote? ›

Hold fast to your dreams, for without them life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.

Did Langston Hughes go to college? ›

Langston Hughes

What did Langston Hughes believe in? ›

A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.

What was Langston Hughes role at the Chicago Defender? ›

He has been referred to as the "Dean of Black Letters" and the "poet low-rate of Harlem." But it was as a columnist for the famous African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender that Hughes chronicled the hopes and despair of his people.

Who is the most important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance? ›

Langston Hughes (1901-1967)

As the most influential and widely celebrated voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes also wrote essays, novels, short stories and plays, all of which centered and celebrated Black life and pride in African American heritage.

How did Langston Hughes influence Martin Luther King Jr? ›

For years, Martin Luther King Jr. and poet Langston Hughes maintained a friendship, exchanging letters and favors and even traveling to Nigeria together in 1960. In 1956, King recited Hughes' poem “Mother to Son” from the pulpit to honor his wife Coretta, who was celebrating her first Mother's Day.

What was Langston Hughes poems about? ›

Langston Hughes

What inspired Langston Hughes to write Dreams? ›

Langston Hughes was inspired to write the poem "Dreams" after his experiences as a Black American in the United States during segregation. Hughes was frustrated with the idea of the "American Dream" and how it was all but inaccessible to most African Americans at the time.

What honor did Harlem bestow on Hughes after his death? ›

He was awarded honorary degrees by Lincoln University, Howard University, and Western Reserve University. After his death, the City College of New York began awarding an annual Langston Hughes Medal to an influential and engaging Black writer.

Why did Langston Hughes became a writer? ›

While on a train to Mexico to visit his father, who had the money to pay his college tuition, Hughes was seized by inspiration to write what would become his earliest acclaimed poem.

Videos

1. Langston Hughes - I, Too
(Impossible Paradise)
2. Langston Hughes - "The Weary Blues" on CBUT, 1958
(vanalogue)
3. Dreams - Langston Hughes
(Charles Belfor)
4. Langston Hughes reads The Negro Speaks of Rivers
(Poetry Reading Live)
5. "Mother to Son" Langston Hughes recites famous Harlem Renaissance poem
(Tim Gracyk)
6. Langston Hughes reads his poems
(thepostarchive)
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