Langston Hughes was an American poet, essayist, playwright, and short story writer. He is still considered one of the most renowned contributors to American literature in the 20th century. He rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance and continued to produce experimental and groundbreaking work for the next several decades. Hughes was known for vocalizing the concerns of working-class African Americans. His work was deeply influenced by jazz, and he often wrote in a simple and straightforward fashion, sometimes even using the vernacular.
Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, a descendant of prominent abolitionists. His racial heritage was a mix of Indian, African, and French. Hughes's father moved to Mexico while the poet was still a child, and Hughes's mother took him to Lawrenceville, Kansas to live with his grandmother. Hughes and his mother lived an itinerant lifestyle while she looked for work, and she made sure to expose her son to literature and theater. Hughes began writing at an early age and published poems and short stories in his Cleveland high school periodical. He also became the editor of the school's annual and was elected his class poet. Besides the work of Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg, Hughes found inspiration in the writing of leftists, philosophers, and progressives.
After graduating from high school, Langston Hughes traveled to Mexico to visit his father. Along the way, he composed his first major poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which was published in W.E.B. DuBois's The Crisis. In 1921, Hughes wrote a prize-winning poem called "The Weary Blues." That poem also appeared in a volume of the same name in 1926. Over the next few years, Hughes met and befriended Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, and Carl Van Vechten, all of whom were associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Langston Hughes traveled to Europe before graduating from Pennsylvania's Lincoln University in 1929.
In 1930, Hughes received a Harmon Foundation Medal for his novel Not Without Laughter. He continued to garner public recognition and win awards for the next three decades, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rosenwald Fund Fellowship, the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP, and an induction to the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
In the 1930s, Hughes's poems became more radical as the racial tensions in America became increasingly divisive. His commitment to Marxist ideals is evident in pieces like "Good Morning Revolution," and his internal conflict with Christianity is apparent in "Goodbye Christ" (1932), which is also his most controversial poem. Hughes wrote about the Spanish Civil War in 1937 for the Baltimore Afro-American. During the 1930s, he also worked regularly in the theater, collaborating with Zora Neale Hurston on Mule Bone (their friendship ended because of this play; Hurston claimed full authorship).
Hughes eventually settled in Harlem but continued to travel throughout his life. He wrote sixteen books of poetry, two novels, seven collections of short stories, two autobiographies, four nonfiction works, ten books for children and more than twenty-five plays.
Hughes never married and is not known to have had any significant romantic relationships. He died alone in 1967 at a hospital in Harlem due to complications from prostate cancer. The New York Times obituary stated, "Mr. Hughes was sometimes characterized as the 'O. Henry of Harlem.' He was an extremely versatile and productive author who was particularly well known for his folksy humor.'"
Why have scholars called Langston Hughes the "African American Poet Laureate of Democracy"?
Like Walt Whitman, Hughes was celebrated for being a "poet of the people." His poems are about the daily struggles of everyday men and women. He creates three-dimensional characters, depicting their dignity as well as their flaws. He does not write about ostentatious politicians or war heroes or gods; rather, his characters' heroism comes out in quiet, subtle ways. Specifically, Hughes wrote about African American men and women, who at the time did not commonly appear in mainstream American poetry. Most famous writers and poets (of both races) ignored the black population of America beyond an occasional paper-thin caricature. Langston Hughes, though, wrote his poetry for and about his community, and therefore, remains an influential and groundbreaking voice in American literature.
What is Hughes's over-arching view on America?
Langston Hughes understood that the American experience was different for her black and white citizens. African Americans were oppressed, discriminated against, and legally classified as second-class citizens. They struggled as slaves for decades and then as poor laborers, always without access to the American Dream. For many, the situation felt hopeless. However, Hughes believed that African Americans deserved equality and presented a vision of America as a racially equal country. He accepted that the path would not be easy, but emphasized that the struggle for equality was worth enduring.
How would you best describe the tone that Hughes most commonly employs in his poetry?
Many of Hughes's poems have a hopeful tone. The speakers are aware of their obstacles - problems with a lover, racism, loneliness, poverty, or the general vicissitudes of life - but eventually decide to persevere. For example, the mother in "Mother to Son" acknowledges that life is hard but claims that her struggles build character and advises her son to never give up. In "Mulatto," the speaker confronts his white father who sired him by a slave mother, and finds his own voice while holding the older man accountable. One character believes he can find a seat at the proverbial main table and force America to live up to her ideals of equality. Even the exhausted musician in "The Weary Blues" seems to have a favorable outlook after he ceases his singing. While Hughes does not gloss over the difficulties of life, he encourages his readers to remain hopeful that positive changes are possible.
What does "On the Road" reveal about Hughes's views on racism and religion?
Before the Civil War, many slaveowners used Christianity as a justification for participating in slavery, claiming that the Bible framed the practice as morally acceptable. Even after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, anti-abolitionists continued to use religion to support their ongoing oppression of African Americans. White churches conveniently ignored Biblical precepts that urged Christians to treat everyone with love and respect. In the short story "On the Road," the white reverend exemplifies this specific kind of religious hypocrisy. He refuses to give Sargeant shelter and succor, leaving him out in the cold snow. As a religious man, the reverend should have been the first to help a fellow human being in need, but he wants nothing to do with the black man on his doorstep. Later, in Sargeant's vision, Christ explains that white people have been content to keep him safely ensconced on the cross and but fail to follow his teachings in their day-to-day actions. They worship Him in church, but then abandon His beliefs when conducting their lives.
How does Hughes's depiction of Harlem vary and change over his body of work?
In Hughes's early poems about Harlem, he depicts his neighborhood as vibrant and lively. He writes about music, dancing women, and nightclubs. This is an expression of the Harlem Renaissance in its heyday, when the cultural and literary explosion was at its peak. However, a downwards spiral started and became amplified in the following decade, when The Great Depression dragged Harlem's residents into poverty and disillusionment. Hughes's later poetry depicts the atmosphere in Harlem as downtrodden and cynical. Its residents' dreams evaporate or are walled up in lieu of the daily struggle for survival. Musicians sing about their misfortunes, and opportunistic men prey on gullible women. Harlem, then, comes to represent everything America has to offer as well as everything that it has long denied its black citizens.
How does Hughes engage with American history in his work?
Langston Hughes understood that the African American community has a bifurcated history - starting on the African continent and carrying through their capture and forced immigration to the New World, where many first arrived as slaves. The American chapter of the story begins at Jamestown and extends to the present, but Hughes traces his African ancestry back to the cradle of civilization and the pyramids. In America, though, the descendants of these ancient people have long since been denied the fruits of freedom. In America, Hughes shows that the black experience has been characterized by oppression, prejudice, and discrimination. Despite the shared human legacy that extends back to the banks of ancient rivers, white Americans have marginalized and denied equality to their black counterparts. Despite this, Hughes has hope that American history will be written differently in the future.
How do Hughes's poems intersect with the music of his time?
Music is an important component of Hughes's poems, as it is in the work of many Harlem Renaissance poets, playwrights and fiction writers. Blues and jazz were a defining part of African American culture during Hughes's time and therefore, permeate his body of work. He portrays both music and poetry as means of catharsis; providing the writer/musician with an opportunity to exorcise demons and to promote the values and beliefs he or she cherishes. For Hughes, music inspired him to write his poems in a rhythmic style, which added to their accessibility, especially when performed or read out loud. The content of blues songs is also very similar to the content of many of Hughes's poems: both deal with loneliness, loss, despair, and hope, however difficult to sustain.
What is Langston Hughes's opinion on dreams?
Dreams figure prominently in Hughes's poems. In "Dreams," he counsels his brethren to hold fast to their dreams because life is too hard without aspirations. Dreams can nurture and sustain hope when times are bleak. In "Harlem," however, Hughes wonders what will happen to those dreams when they have been ignored for too long. He acknowledges that they might just crust over, and considers the possibility that they might explode. In "As I Grew Older," a young African American man grapples with a dream that has been walled up and hidden behind shadows. After first surrendering to apathy, he decides to take action, shatter the wall, and retrieve his dream. In doing so, he becomes self-actualized. In Hughes's poems about America, he regularly implies that due to racism and inequality, the dreams of an entire people have been deferred. Hughes believes that someday, African Americans can reach out and claim their latent dreams. Hughes believes, therefore, that dreams are sustaining but to a point - they also eventually need to be be addressed.
How does Langston Hughes depict the Harlem Renaissance in his writing?
Hughes's writing celebrated the average African American man and woman, like many other Harlem Renaissance writers. He celebrated the music, nightlife, and the history of African Americans. Hughes concerned himself primarily with identity and the black experience in America. Hughes structured his poems in experimental and modernist ways, allowing him to explore a new racial consciousness. He used his work as a forum to extol the merits of his people, making a case for their humanity and for racial equality.
How does Langston Hughes portray his female characters?
Hughes did not marry nor did he have any major relationships with women besides his mother. There is a discernible lack of women in Hughes's poems overall. It is understood that women appear alongside men when Hughes describes the African American condition, but he rarely writes about a specific female narrator or protagonist. The few exceptions are as follows: Hughes writes about female slaves, lamenting the horror they faced when their masters raped them. The mother in "Mulatto" is, in this way, a more tragic figure than her son. The woman in "50-50" is sorrowful and allows a man to take advantage of her money; because hard times in Harlem have brought emotional duress as well. And finally, the mother in "Mother to Son" is an example of a strong, confident woman who challenges her son to stay strong in the face of difficulties, just as she has done. She is a bedrock and an encourager. Although women do not figure prominently in Hughes's poems, he certainly respected them - perhaps he did not write female characters because he obviously had a deeper emotional understanding of the male experience.