Langston Hughes, born on February 1, 1901, and departing on May 22, 1967, left an indelible mark as an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist hailing from Joplin, Missouri. A trailblazer in the realm of jazz poetry, Hughes stands out as a pivotal figure in the Harlem Renaissance, capturing the essence of an era when the spotlight turned towards African American culture, coining the phrase “the Negro was in vogue,” later echoed as “when Harlem was in vogue.”
His formative years unfolded in various Midwestern towns, where his burgeoning talent as a writer began to blossom early. The trajectory of his career led him to New York City, a move that would define his artistic journey. Though he left Columbia University in his youth, Hughes garnered attention from New York publishers, first through The Crisis magazine and later through book publishers, establishing himself within the vibrant creative community of Harlem. Eventually, he attained his degree from Lincoln University.
Beyond his prowess in poetry, Hughes ventured into the realms of playwriting and short stories, showcasing his versatility as an artist. Additionally, he authored several nonfiction works. From 1942 to 1962, a crucial period Characterized by the force and energy of the civil rights movement, Hughes contributed a profound weekly column to the esteemed black newspaper, The Chicago Defender. His writings became a powerful voice in advocating for civil rights, reflecting the evolving socio-political landscape of the time.
Langston Hughes Early Life
James Mercer Langston Hughes came into the world on February 1, 1902, in the city of Joplin, Missouri. His early life was marked by the separation of his parents, James Hughes and Carrie Langston, who parted ways shortly after his birth. Following this, his father relocated to Mexico, creating a physical and emotional distance.
During his formative years, Hughes experienced a nomadic existence as his mother traversed different locations. However, his upbringing was primarily overseen by his maternal grandmother, Mary, until her passing in his early adolescence. Subsequently, he moved in with his mother, embarking on a journey that saw them settling in various cities before finding stability in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was amidst these transformative years that Hughes discovered his passion for poetry. His initiation into the world of verse came under the guidance of a teacher who introducing him to the writings of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, figures who would profoundly shape Hughes’ own poetic voice.
In addition to honing his craft, Hughes actively participated in his school’s literary pursuits, becoming a regular contributor to the literary magazine. His burgeoning talent extended beyond the school gates as he submitted his work to various poetry magazines, even though they often met rejection. These early challenges, however, did not deter Hughes but rather served as stepping stones in the remarkable literary journey of a poet who would go on to become a central figure in American literature.
Langston Hughes Career
Initially published in 1921 within the pages The Crisis, the sanctioned magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” swiftly emerged as Langston Hughes’s quintessential poem. This seminal work found its place in Hughes’s debut poetry collection, The Weary Blues, released in 1926. Remarkably, The Crisis played a pivotal role in Hughes’s literary journey, hosting not only his inaugural but also his final published poems—establishing itself as a significant platform for his poetic expression.
The early 1920s saw Hughes’s life and work become influential forces during the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural and artistic movement flourishing in the African American community. Alongside contemporaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas. Hughes played a central role. Collaboratively, they ventured into the creation of the short-lived magazine Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists, a bold initiative reflecting their commitment to shaping and challenging the artistic landscape.
Setting themselves apart from the aspirations of the black middle class, Hughes and his peers aimed to capture the essence of the “low-life” in their art—the authentic experiences of blacks in the lower social-economic strata. Criticizing divisions and prejudices within the black community, particularly those based on skin color, they sought to redefine artistic expression and narrative.
In 1926, Hughes penned what is considered a manifesto for this movement titled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” featured in The Nation. In this poignant piece, he articulated the resolve of younger Negro artists to authentically portray their dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. Their creative pursuits, he asserted, aimed to stand independent of the approval or disapproval of white or colored audiences. The manifesto underscored their commitment to constructing a cultural legacy and artistic identity that embraced the full spectrum of African-American experiences.
Hughes’s body of work, encompassing poetry and fiction, served as a vivid portrayal of the lives of working-class blacks in America. Through his words, he illuminated the nuances of their existence—marked by struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Implicit in his creations was an unwavering pride in the diversity of the African-American identity and culture. Hughes stated his artistic mission succinctly: “I have aimed to elucidate and shed light on the African American experience in America, and indirectly, that of all. humankind.” Confronting racial stereotypes, protesting social conditions, and championing a broadened image of African America, Hughes emerged as a “people’s poet” who sought to reeducate both audience and artist by translating the theory of the black aesthetic into tangible reality.
Hughes’s intellectual and creative philosophy placed significant emphasis on fostering racial consciousness and cultural nationalism, rejecting any elements of self-hate. He advocated for a unified sense of identity among people of African descent worldwide, promoting pride in the rich tapestry of black folk culture and the black aesthetic. Notably, Hughes stood out as one of the few influential black writers who championed racial consciousness as a powerful wellspring of inspiration for black artists.
His unwavering commitment to African-American race consciousness and cultural nationalism resonated globally, leaving an indelible mark on foreign black writers. Figures like Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire found inspiration in Hughes’s ideas. Together with the works of Senghor, Césaire, and other French-speaking writers of African and Caribbean descent, such as René Maran and Léon Damas, Hughes’s writings played a pivotal role in fueling the Négritude movement in France—a movement that advocated for a radical self-examination in the face of European colonialism.
Hughes not only influenced social attitudes but also made a significant technical impact on the world of poetry. He underscored the importance of folk and jazz rhythms as the foundation of his poetry of racial pride, leaving an enduring legacy that resonated in the work of subsequent artists.
In 1930, Hughes achieved acclaim with his first novel, “Not Without Laughter,” earning the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. This poignant work delved into the struggles faced by a family, particularly the young protagonist Sandy, navigating the intersections of race and class. Hughes’s ability to weave a compelling narrative that addressed these multifaceted challenges showcased his literary prowess.
During an era with limited arts grants, Hughes secured support from private patrons, sustaining his creative pursuits for two years before the publication of “Not Without Laughter.” This financial backing allowed him to navigate the literary landscape with a degree of independence.
In 1931, Hughes played a role in the formation of the “New York Suitcase Theater” alongside playwright Paul Peters, artist Jacob Burck, and writer Whittaker Chambers. This collaborative effort reflected Hughes’s engagement with various artistic mediums and his commitment to bringing unique perspectives to the stage.
Hughes’s involvement extended beyond literature and theater. In 1932, he joined a board to produce a Soviet film on “Negro Life,” aligning himself with prominent figures like Malcolm Cowley, Floyd Dell, and Whittaker Chambers.
The year 1931 marked the establishment of the Golden Stair Press by Hughes and Prentiss Taylor, issuing broadsides and books featuring Taylor’s artwork and Hughes’s texts. Notably, they released “The Scottsboro Limited” in 1932, a work centered around the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, highlighting Hughes’s engagement with social and political issues.
Hughes’s diverse creative endeavors included a collaborative pageant with Ellen Winter in 1932, dedicated to Caroline Decker and her work with striking coal miners during the Harlan County War. Despite its noble intentions, the pageant was never performed, deemed too intricate and unwieldy.
Throughout various phases of his career, Hughes benefited from the guidance of literary agent Maxim Lieber, who represented him during two distinct periods, from 1933 to 1945 and then again from 1949 to 1950. Chambers and Lieber, who had collaborated in the underground scene around 1934–1935, played significant roles in Hughes’s professional life.In 1934, Langston Hughes presented his first collection of short stories, titled “The Ways of White Folks.” Completing this work at “Ennesfree,” a Carmel-by-the-Sea cottage generously provided by patron Noel Sullivan, Hughes offered a series of vignettes capturing the nuanced and often poignant interactions between whites and blacks. The stories, marked by a blend of humor and tragedy, conveyed a general pessimism about race relations, coupled with a sardonic realism.
During his stay in Carmel, Hughes enjoyed the company of notable locals such as Robinson and Una Jeffers, Martin Flavin, Lincoln Steffens, and Ella Winter, who enriched his experience with their presence and hospitality.
As part of his commitment to social causes, Hughes became an advisory board member for the newly formed San Francisco Workers’ School, later known as the California Labor School. In 1935, he was honored with a Guggenheim Fellowship. That same year, Hughes realized a cinematic ambition by co-writing the screenplay for “Way Down South” alongside Clarence Muse, a prominent African-American Hollywood actor and musician. Hughes, however, perceived racial discrimination within the movie industry as a hindrance to securing more opportunities in the lucrative field.
In 1937, Hughes crafted a significant long poem titled “Madrid,” a response to an assignment on African Americans participating as volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Accompanied by poignant etchings by Canadian artist Dalla Husband, the poem was published in 1939 as the hardcover book “Madrid 1937.”
Establishing The Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1941, Hughes aimed to foster black playwrights and offer theater from a distinctly black perspective. Simultaneously, he began a noteworthy column for the Chicago Defender, where he showcased some of his most powerful and relevant work, providing a voice for black individuals. This column endured for two decades, reinforcing Hughes’s impact as a cultural commentator.
In 1943, Hughes introduced the character Jesse B. Semple, affectionately known as “Simple,” in his stories—a portrayal of the everyday black man in Harlem who shared musings on topical issues of the time. While Hughes rarely engaged in teaching at colleges, he made an exception in 1947, spending a stint at Atlanta University. Later, in 1949, he served as a visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
From 1942 to 1949, Hughes consistently contributed to Common Ground, a literary magazine dedicated to exploring cultural pluralism in the United States. During this time, he also played a role on the editorial board. Hughes displayed versatility in his literary endeavors, producing novels, short stories, plays, poetry, operas, essays, and works tailored for children.
Under the encouragement of his close friend Arna Bontemps and patron Carl Van Vechten, Hughes penned Zora Neale Hurston penned two autobiographical volumes, namely “The Big Sea” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Additionally, he translated various works of literature into English. Teaming up with Bontemps, Hughes co-edited the 1949 anthology “The Poetry of the Negro,” praised by The New York Times for its stimulating cross-section of imaginative writing, prompting reflection on the necessity of the term “Negro” in its title beyond social evidence.From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, Langston Hughes experienced a fluctuating reception among the younger generation of black writers, even as his global reputation continued to rise. As the nation moved gradually toward racial integration, some black writers perceived Hughes’s themes of black pride and corresponding subject matter as outdated, labeling him a racial chauvinist. The changing landscape prompted a divergence in views, with some finding his perspective on race to be too assertive.
During this period, Hughes encountered a new wave of writers, including James Baldwin, whom he saw as lacking the pride he deemed essential. Hughes critiqued these emerging voices for what he perceived as an excessive intellectualism in their work and occasional vulgarity. Despite these critiques, Hughes advocated for objectivity about one’s race without scorn or rejection, emphasizing the importance of maintaining a connection with one’s cultural identity.
While Hughes acknowledged the central tenets of the Black Power movement in the 1960s, he expressed concern that some of the younger black writers supporting it were overly angry in their work. In response, Hughes aimed to demonstrate solidarity with these writers through his posthumously published work, “Panther and the Lash” in 1967. This collection sought to align with the sentiments of the younger generation but with more finesse and without the extreme anger and racial chauvinism directed towards whites that characterized some of their work.
Despite the varying opinions within the younger black writers’ community, Hughes maintained admirers among a broader segment of the younger generation. He played a mentoring role, offering guidance and introducing emerging writers to influential figures in literature and publishing. Among this latter group was Alice Walker, whom Hughes discovered. For these writers, Hughes served as a hero and exemplar, setting a standard of brotherhood, friendship, and cooperation. As one young black writer, Loften Mitchell, observed, “Langston established a tone, a benchmark of brotherhood, friendship, and cooperation for all of us to emulate. From him, you never received the message, ‘I am the Negro writer,’ but rather, ‘I am a Negro writer.’ He consistently considered the well-being of the rest of us.” Hughes’s enduring impact on the literary community extended beyond his own generation, leaving a legacy of inclusivity and support for future voices.
Langston Hughes Death
On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes passed away due to complications of prostate cancer. His funeral, a tribute to his poetic legacy, deviated from the traditional spoken eulogy and instead resonated with the soulful sounds of jazz and blues music—a fitting homage to the artistic essence that defined Hughes’s life.
In a poignant memorial gesture, Hughes’s ashes found their resting place beneath the entrance of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The inscription, drawn from Hughes’s own poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” reads: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” This poetic choice encapsulates the profound connection between Hughes’s soul and the cultural currents he explored and celebrated in his work.
The home Hughes resided in on East 127th Street in Harlem gained New York City Landmark status in 1981 and was subsequently added to the National Register of Places in 1982. This recognition solidifies the enduring importance of Hughes’s physical space within the historical and cultural landscape of Harlem.
Even beyond his physical presence, volumes of Hughes’s work continue to be published and translated worldwide, ensuring that his words and insights reach new generations. The impact of Langston Hughes, both as a literary giant and a cultural icon, endures through the ongoing exploration and appreciation of his contributions to American and global literature.
Langston Hughes Age
On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes passed away at the age of 66 in the Stuyvesant Polyclinic in New York City. His death was attributed to complications arising from abdominal surgery. The loss marked the end of an era for American literature, but Hughes’s profound impact on poetry, social activism, and the cultural landscape persisted as a lasting legacy.
Langston Hughes Net Worth And Income
Langston Hughes’ net worth at the time of his passing was estimated to be around $1.5 million. While it is challenging to pinpoint the exact financial details of an individual, this approximate figure is derived from various sources. It is widely acknowledged that determining someone’s precise assets or monthly earnings is nearly impossible. In the case of Langston Hughes, the cited net worth serves as an estimate based on available information. Additionally, it is important to note that financial circumstances can be complex and subject to change.