Who Was Langston Hughes?
Langston Hughes, or James Mercer Langston Hughes, was a famous African American writer and thinker who sparked a revolution. But rather than picket signs and marches, he did it with a pen.
Langston Hughes is renowned for his contributions to a literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry and writings brought this literary movement of the 1920s to the forefront, helping to shape America.
1. Innovator of Jazz Poetry
Langston Hughes is recognized as an innovator of jazz poetry, which mimics jazz music’s flow and rhythm. One of his famous jazz poems is “The Weary Blues."
2. Controversial Birth Year
The general consensus is that Langston Hughes’ birthdate is February 1st, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. However, uncovered research of Langston Hughes’ life might show that he was born in 1901 rather than 1902.
3. Poet of the People
Langston Hughes has been called a "poet of the people" because of his depictions of Black culture and everyday life. Hughes wrote about what he saw happening in the world around him and inspired others to be proud of being Black.
4. Reporter for the Chicago Defender
While Langston Hughes is most prolifically known for his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance, he was also a proficient reporter. He wrote for the influential African-American newspaper, the Chicago Defender, for 20 years from 1942 to 1962. He used his position as a reporter to bring more light to controversial issues of the time, like injustices in America and abroad.
5. Newspaper Correspondent During the Spanish Civil War
In 1937, Hughes worked for The Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and reported on the Spanish Civil War. For five months, he stayed in Spain writing 22 articles covering unique war areas like Black Americans volunteering in the Abraham Lincoln and Washington Brigades. He also wrote two poems during this time: “Postcard from Spain” and “Letter from Spain.”
6. Award-Winning Writer
Throughout his lifetime, Langston Hughes won a multitude of awards for his literary prowess. A few of his accolades include:
Multiple awards and prizes for poetry contests like Opportunity, Amy Spingarn Contest and Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Prize Contests
Intercollegiate Poetry Award in 1927
Golden Harmon Award in 1930
Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935
Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941
Ainsfeld-Wolfe Award in 1954
Spingarn Medal in 1960
7. Studied Engineering
Langston Hughes attended Columbia’s School of Mines, Engineering and Chemistry from 1921 to 1922. While he might have attended engineering school to please his father, Langston decided this wasn’t his path in life and dropped out after a year. However, it was during his time at Columbia that Hughes got involved in the Harlem cultural movement. While he might have dropped out of Columbia, he did graduate with a Bachelor of Arts from Lincoln University.
8. Never Married
Langston Hughes' curious nature and love of writing helped him to travel around the world. His experience of the world never included a famous love affair or getting married. In fact, throughout his life, Langston Hughes maintained his single status. He was never married and didn't have any children.
9. Started His Memoir at Age 23
While his memoir didn’t see publication until nearly 15 years later, Hughes was first approached about composing his biography, The Big Sea, when he was only 23 years old. Since he wasn’t up to the challenge at such a young age, it took him some time to get his experiences down into words.
10. Self-Identified as a Brown Person
Langston Hughes was open about sharing his familial background. His paternal great-grandfather was a Jewish slave trader, while his maternal great-grandfather was a white captain. Both of his great-grandmothers were Black slaves. Therefore, when asked about his family history, Langston Hughes clarified he was Brown rather than Black.
11. Wrote Several Plays
The writings of Langston Hughes weren’t confined to just poetry and reporting. He could write just about anything, including plays and short stories. A few of his famous plays include Mulatto, Black Nativity, Simply Heaven, Tambourines to Glory, and Jerico-Jim Crow.
12. Wrote "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" at Age 17
One of his most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was written by Langston Hughes in 1920 at the tender age of 17. During a trip to Mexico with his father, Hughes was inspired to write his work of heritage and strength while crossing the Mississippi River. This pivotal piece of writing was dedicated to W.E.B. DuBois and was published in The Crisis in 1921.
13. Traveled the World
Inspiration takes work, and Langston Hughes was never one to sit still. During his youth and life, he traveled around the globe, noting the human condition and inequality. Not only did he travel to Africa as a steward on a freighter, but he spent time in South America, Europe, and Asia.
14. Helped Launch the Magazine "Fire!!"
Fire!! was the brainchild of Langston Hughes and Richard Nugent. This magazine was pivotal to the growth of the Harlem Renaissance movement, even though it had limited issues. While this magazine started with a dream to highlight the African American condition, it quickly ended because of finances and the building burning.
15. Wrote Poetry Until His Death
Langston Hughes is famous for his contribution to the world of poetry. In fact, throughout his life, he never stopped composing poems. Until he died in 1967 (due to complications from a surgery for prostate cancer), he was writing poetry. The last published work by Langston Hughes was The Panther & the Lash about the Black Power movement.
Langston Hughes: Leader of the Harlem Renaissance
Langston Hughes brought light to a lot of different issues in America and abroad. However, his work is most famous for bringing light to the Harlem Renaissance movement. With one slice of the pen, Hughes’ poetry, short stories, and plays inspired the African American artistic movement’s masses. Continue exploring influential Black literature with a biography of Zora Neale Hurston. Hughes not only celebrated Black lives but helped to shape racial pride. So, you might also want to learn about another influential African American leader — Martin Luther King, Jr.