Active during the twentieth century, Langston Hughes was an African American writer most famous for his poetry. He was also a playwright, novelist and columnist; and his monumental work had an immense impact not only on American literature but also on twentieth century literature as a whole. Hughes is also renowned as the leading figure of the African American cultural, social and artistic movement Harlem Renaissance. Here are 10 interesting facts about the family, life, personality and death; as well as career, major works, contribution and accomplishments, of Langston Hughes.
#1 His paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners of Kentucky
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on 1st February 1902 in Joplin in the U.S. state of Missouri. His ancestry was mixed with both his paternal great-grandmothers being African-American while both his paternal great-grandfathers being white slave owners of Kentucky. Langston was the second child, and the only one to survive till adulthood, of James Nathaniel Hughes and his wife Caroline Mercer Langston. Their first child was either stillborn or died shortly after birth. Caroline was a schoolteacher while James worked as a stenographer in a mining company in Joplin. The couple had an unhappy marriage; they separated soon after the birth of Langston and divorced later.
#2 His maternal grandfather Charles Henry Langston was a prominent abolitionist
Frustrated with discrimination in America, Langston’s father, James, moved to Cuba and then to Mexico before Langston was nine months old. Separated from her husband, Langston’s mother Caroline had to travel often to various places in search of work. Langston was primarily raised by his maternal grandmother Mary Patterson. Langston described his grandmother as a proud, elderly woman who told him stories about the greatness of his ancestors. Mary’s first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, participated and died in abolitionist John Brown’s 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry to initiate an armed slave revolt. Her second husband, Charles Henry Langston, Hughes’s grandfather, was a prominent 19th century abolitionist who was among the founders and leaders of Ohio Anti-Slavery Society.
#3 Langston faced racial discrimination in his early schools
Langston started attending school in 1908. He faced racial discrimination. In the Harrison Street School near their home in Topeka, Langston’s teacher once confiscated licorice from his classmate and warned him from eating black candies saying, “They will make you black like Langston. You don’t want to be black? Do you?” In his next school, Pickney School in Lawrence, his teacher in seventh grade forced all black students to sit together in a separate row, which Langston labelled as Jim Crow Row. In March 1915, Langston’s grandmother Mary died. Langston later described his childhood years as lonesome which he believes was the reason behind him being enveloped in the “wonderful world in books”.
#4 His first jazz poem was When Sue Wears Red
Langston’s mother Caroline had remarried when he was an adolescent. In 1915, after finishing seventh grade, Langston moved to Lincoln, Illinois to live with his mother; his stepfather, Homer Clark; and his stepbrother, Gwyn Clark. They then moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Langston attended Central High School. During high school, Langston was class poet, wrote for the school newspaper and began writing short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays. Jazz poetry is poetry that is read to the accompaniment of jazz music. Hughes is famous for his Jazz poetry and was one of the earliest innovators in the genre. He wrote his first piece of jazz poem, When Sue Wears Red, when he was in high school in Cleveland.
#5 He wrote his famous poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers at the age of seventeen
In 1919, Langston’s father asked Langston to spend the summer with him in Mexico, which Langston later described as the most miserable summer of his life. However, after graduating from high school in 1920, Langston decided to visit his father again to convince him to finance his education at Columbia University. It was on his journey to Mexico that Hughes produced one of his most famous and acclaimed poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. He later revealed that the idea of the poem came to him while the train crossed the Mississippi. The poem was published in the June 1921 issue of the magazine The Crisis.
#6 His first collection of poetry The Weary Blues was published in 1926
After his father agreed to finance his education, Hughes joined in 1921 the Columbia University in New York City; however he dropped out a year later. Langston then worked at various jobs before becoming a steward in S.S. Malone, a ship bound to Africa. After traveling to West Africa and Europe, he left S.S. Malone for a temporary stay in Paris. Here he had a brief romance with a British-educated African named Anne Marie Coussey. He returned to U.S. in late 1924. In 1925, while working as a busboy in a hotel in Washington, D.C., Hughes showed his poems to prominent American poet Vachel Lindsay. The following day, newspapers around the country reported Lindsay’s discovery of an African American busboy poet. Langston’s first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, was published the following year.
#7 His debut novel Not Without Laughter was published in 1930
In 1926, Langston Hughes joined the Lincoln University, a historically black university in Chester County, Pennsylvania. By the time he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1929, another poetry collection by him titled Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) had been published. In the year after his graduation, Hughes’s debut novel Not Without Laughter (1930) was published. This was followed by the play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life (1931), which he wrote along with another famous African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. In 1934, Hughes’s first collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks, was published. The collection is considered among his best works. Langston’s famous autobiography The Big Sea was published in 1940.
#8 Langston Hughes was the leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance was an African American cultural, social and artistic movement which was centered at the Harlem neighborhood in New York City and peaked in the 1920s. Hughes became involved in the movement from the time he studied at Columbia University. Numerous poems written by him appeared in The Crisis, the most prominent magazine of the movement. Hughes went on to be among the primary contributors of Harlem Renaissance with his work playing a pivotal role in the movement. He was among the most prominent leaders of the renaissance and influenced its direction by urging its artists to create distinctive “Negro” art and not falling for the “urge within the race toward whiteness”.
#9 He worked as a columnist for The Chicago Defender for twenty years
After his graduation from Lincoln University, Hughes lived the rest of his life primarily in Harlem apart from travels to foreign nations. In 1937, he worked as a newspaper correspondent in the Spanish Civil War. From 1942 to 1962, Langston worked as a columnist for the Chicago based weekly newspaper The Chicago Defender. It was in his column there that he introduced the comic character Jesse B. Semple, a poor man living in Harlem. Often misspelled Simple, it went on to be widely popular. In 1947, he taught creative writing at Atlanta University. Hughes was a prolific writer and continued to write poems, short stories, plays, novels, non-fiction and children’s books throughout his life.
#10 Hughes might have been gay
Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 in New York City due to complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. He was 65 years old. Hughes never married nor had any children. However he did have a brief adoptive paternal relationship with an African from Nigeria named Chuba Nweke, who was around fifteen when he first corresponded with Hughes. There is debate about the sexuality of Langston Hughes with several scholars and biographers considering him to be homosexual. This is supported by Hughes including various gay codes in his works. Also his unpublished love poems were addressed to a man he called “Beauty.”