Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, to a family rich with African-American history. His great-great granduncle was John Mercer Langston, the first African American to be elected to public office in 1855. When his parents divorced, he went to live with his grandmother, widow of Sheridan Leary, who fought alongside abolitionist John Brown in the 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry.
When he was thirteen, Hughes left his grandmother's house in Kansas and moved first to Lincoln, Illinois, and then to Cleveland, Ohio with his mother and stepfather. He began writing poetry in high school, and was selected "Class Poet." The summer after he graduated, he published his famous poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in the NAACP's magazine, Crisis. His father had moved to Mexico shortly after the divorce and did not want his son to pursue writing. He offered his son college tuition on the grounds that he study engineering. Hughes conceded, and attended Columbia University; he stayed for a year, then dropped out with a B+ average. For the next five years he worked odd jobs to support his travels. He discovered Harlem and visited Africa and Europe while working on a merchant ship. He returned to the United States in 1924 and published The Weary Blues, his first book of poetry, two years later.
The Weary Blues was created after many nights of Hughes's favorite activity-sitting in jazz clubs for hours on end, listening to the impromptu rifts and beats created by the musicians. Hughes wrote it with the idea of musical accompaniment. He had fallen in love with Harlem in his travels, and Harlem was famous for jazz. The Harlem Renaissance was entering its prime, and Hughes circulated with many prominent African Americans, all of them intent on reawakening the country to African-American culture and art. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street...(these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
The literary community welcomed Hughes with open arms, and he won the Opportunity Prize and the prestigious Spingarn Award for his poetry. His success, combined with the praise of white poet-performer Vachel Lindsay, allowed Hughes to go back to school. (Lindsay had discovered his writing when Hughes, working as a busboy in 1925, had slipped some poems in Lindsay's jacket pocket at Washington, D.C.'s Wardman Hotel.) Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania on a scholarship and graduated three years later. After graduation, he was free to earn his living as a writer, especially with the help of his new patron Mrs. Charlotte Mason, a generous and sometimes controlling friend.
His first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published in 1930 to predictably outstanding reviews. He wrote a collection of short stories and a play, and covered the Spanish-American war for the Baltimore Afro-American. Around this time he visited the Soviet Union, where he learned more about socialism.
Back in the United States, Hughes continued his prolific career, founding theaters, editing anthologies, writing an autobiography, and starting his famous column in the Chicago Defender. Based on a conversation in a bar, the character of "Jesse B. Simple" grew to occupy five collections of work, in which he and the narrator commented on life, race, and racism.
Hughes was a strong public figure and wrote many articles on politics, society, and race. One of his finest was "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," a 1926 essay in The Nation. In it, he criticized writers "who would surrender racial pride in the name of a false integration." Hughes had witnessed the still-present racism in America, did not understand why a talented African-American writer would prefer to be considered a poet, not a "Black poet." Still, he encouraged young literary African Americans and continued to write unapologetically of his culture. However, in the 1950s, his politics began to cause him unwanted attention. Senator Joseph McCarthy was leading his crusade against supposed Communist sympathizers in America, and Hughes's trips to the Soviet Union and subsequent radical verse seemed suspicious. In 1953, McCarthy forced him to appear in Washington, D.C., and testify officially about his politics. Despite this embarrassment, Hughes remained popular -- McCarthy was later discredited and his campaign revealed to be nothing but a falsified witch-hunt.
From 1926 to 1967 Hughes wrote over fifty texts, among them novels, plays, opera, children's books, short-story collections, "documentary fiction" collections, and radio and television scripts. He was both an idealist and a skeptic, fighting for equality and questioning the reality of the "American Dream." As he became older, and the Civil Rights movement turned more militant, Hughes's popularity waned. Nevertheless, he continued his public life, being inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters and, with the appointment of President Johnson, leading the American delegation at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar.
Langston Hughes died May 22, 1967, in his beloved Harlem. Streets were renamed in his honor, and the New York Preservation Committee gave his home landmark status; there are Langston Hughes literary reviews and Langston Hughes memorial libraries.
While buildings are important tributes, the "Poet Laureate of Harlem" will be remembered for his words, for providing passion and courage to an entire nation. In an essay written in 1926 and published in The Nation, he said, "We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame…. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves."