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Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes

A key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was far more than a poet. He wrote short stories, novels, children's books, plays, newspaper columns, and even an autobiography. And although he claimed Harlem as his home for the majority of his life, he traveled far and wide across the country, but also across the world to places as varied as Cuba, West Africa, Japan, Spain, and the Soviet Union.

Langston Hughes Biography

Langston Hughes Biography Photograph of Langston Hughes StudySmarterPhotograph of Langston Hughes taken by Carl van Vechten,

Langston Hughes Biography: Early Life

Langston Hughes was born on February 1st, 1901 in Joplin, Missouri to parents James Hughes and Carrie Langston Hughes. His parents split up when he was young and he went to live with his grandmother, Mary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. While living with her, she taught him African oral traditions and instilled a sense of pride in him for his heritage.

When his grandmother passed away in his early teens, Langston Hughes went to live with his mother and her new husband in Lincoln, Illinois before they settled in Cleveland, Ohio. While in high school, he developed his interest in writing poetry, inspired by the likes of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. He often contributed to the school’s literary magazine.

Langston Hughes Biography: The Early 1920s

When Langston Hughes graduated high school in 1920, he went to live with his father, who had settled in Mexico. His father agreed to pay for his education so long as he studied engineering, and in 1921, Langston Hughes began his college career at Columbia University in New York City.

While at Columbia University, Langston Hughes felt oppressed by the school’s racist environment but found a sense of community in the Harlem neighborhood. He was at the center of the Harlem Renaissance and rubbed shoulders with many notable figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois.

The Harlem Renaissance

a cultural movement centered in Harlem during the 1920s that celebrated black heritage, music, literature, and art

During this time, Langston Hughes published his first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in Crisis magazine.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve

seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”

- Lanston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” 1921

In 1922, Langston Hughes dropped out of Columbia University and spent the next year traveling aboard a ship that stopped in both Africa and Spain. In 1924, he settled in Paris for a time, joining other expatriate writers of the 1920s. Later that year, he made his return to the United States where he settled in Washington D.C.

Langston Hughes Biography: Education and Early Writing Career

While working as a busboy in Washington D.C., Langston Hughes met poet Vachel Lindsay who helped connect him with the right people. In 1925, Hughes won first place for his poem, “The Weary Blues,” in a competition put on by Opportunity Magazine. The same year, he received a scholarship to attend Lincoln University.

With his ebony hands on each ivory key

He made that poor piano moan with melody.

O Blues!

Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool

He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.

Sweet Blues!

Coming from a black man’s soul.

O Blues!”

- Langston Hughes, “The Weary Blues,” 1925

Once again, in 1926, Langston Hughes met a poet impressed by his work and willing to help his career. Carl van Vechten helped Hughes get his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published. Hughes followed with a second collection of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, the next year. When he graduated from Lincoln University in 1929, he also published his first novel, Not Without Laughter. Encouraged by its commercial success, Hughes decided to pursue a career in writing.

Langston Hughes Biography: The 1930s

Langston Hughes spent the 1930s writing, giving lectures across the country, and traveling abroad to places such as the Soviet Union, Japan, and Haiti. He published his first short stories collection, The Ways of White Folks, in 1934 and spent time as a Spanish Civil War correspondent in 1937 where he met Ernest Hemingway. During this time, he was also trying his hand at scriptwriting and theater. In 1935, his first play, Mulatto, appeared on Broadway, and in 1938, he opened the Harlem Suitcase Theater.

Leftist Ideology

After Langston Hughes spent time in Haiti and Cuba in 1931, he took on a leftist ideology as evidenced by his works critiquing capitalism. In 1944, the FBI began an investigation on him, suspecting his involvement in communist activities. He also became a target of the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives, which was formed to weed out communists amid the second Red Scare.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Langston Hughes suffered attacks by conservatives who feared his leftist ideology. In 1953, he plead his case before Senator Joseph McCarthy where Hughes argued that he no longer aligned with his leftist ideology of the past. Although the Committee found him innocent, Hughes continued to face attacks throughout the rest of his career.

Langston Hughes Biography: Jesse B. Semple

In 1940, Langston Hughes published his autobiography, The Big Sea, which covered the first 28 years of his life. He also began working as a columnist for the Chicago Defender where he first introduced his famous character, Jesse B. Semple, also known as “Simple.” Supposed to represent the average working-class Black man, Simple faced and resolved issues of class and racism that the Black population could relate to.

Langston Hughes Biography: Later Life and Death

Throughout the rest of his life, Langston Hughes lived in Harlem where he continued to write and advocate for civil rights. He favored a non-militant approach aligning himself with Martin Luther King Jr. and the NAACP. He passed away on May 22, 1967, due to complications from surgery.

Langston Hughes Poems and Quotes

Lanston Hughes’ poetry appealed to a wide audience with its simplistic style and lyrical patterns of jazz. He focused on themes such as Black pride, racial discrimination, and the American Dream.

The American Dream

the belief that anyone can make it big in America so long as they work hard

In “Let America Be America Again,” he examined the relationship between America and its black citizens:

“Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)”

- Langston Hughes, “Let America Be America Again,” 1936

In “Harlem,” Hughes specifically examined the failure of the American Dream for America’s black citizens:

“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?”

- Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” 1951

Langston Hughes Accomplishments and Legacy

Langston Hughes was a central writer of the Harlem Renaissance. He had great pride in his community and his heritage and worked to give an honest portrayal of the lives of working-class Black citizens. His characters were complex, with both good and bad qualities. Some of his contemporaries found an issue with this, believing any negative depictions of black people could hurt the civil rights movement. However, Langston Hughes appealed to a wide audience with both his works and ideology, winning numerous awards throughout his life.

Langston Hughes - Key takeaways

  • Langston Hughes was born in 1901 and lived with his grandmother until his early teens. She taught him African oral traditions and instilled in him a sense of pride in his heritage.
  • He went to Columbia University which took him to New York City, where the Harlem Renaissance was occurring. He published his first poem, dropped out, and traveled the world for a couple of years.
  • When he returned to the United States, he made connections that helped him get his poetry published. He received a scholarship to Lincoln University where he earned his bachelor's degree before pursuing a career in writing.
  • Hughes was a key writer of the Harlem Renaissance, writing much more than poetry throughout his life and covering themes such as:
    • Black pride
    • racial discrimination
    • the American Dream
  • He favored a non-militant approach to civil rights.

Frequently Asked Questions about Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was a key writer of the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes died from complications of surgery. 

Langston Hughes never married and there is evidence to suggest that he might have been gay. 

Langston Hughes was known for his writing, namely his poetry, and his role in the Harlem Renaissance. 

Langston Hughes was important because he was a prominent writer of the Harlem Renaissance and covered pertinent themes in his writings, such as black pride and racial discrimination, 

Final Langston Hughes Quiz


Who raised Langston Hughes and taught him African oral tradition?

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his grandmother

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Where did Langston Hughes attend college in 1921?

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Columbia University

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Where did Langston Hughes find a sense of community while attending college in 1921?

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Who helped Lanston Hughes get his first book of poetry published?

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Carl van Vechten

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What was Langston Hughes' first published poem?

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"The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

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During which war did Langston Hughes serve as a news correspondent?

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the Spanish Civil War

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What was the name of the character Langston Hughes created for his column in the Chicago Defender?

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Jesse B. Semple

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What is the name of Langston Hughes' autobiography?

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The Big Sea

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Which is not a major theme of Langston Hughes' works?

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Langston Hughes was militant and radical in his approach to civil rights.

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