28 Days Of Black History Day #24 James Mercer Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He was one of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry. Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. He famously wrote about the period that “the negro was in vogue” which was later paraphrased as “when Harlem was in vogue”
Both of Hughes’ paternal great-grandmothers were African-American and both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners of Kentucky. According to Hughes, one of these men was Sam Clay, a Scottish-American whiskey distiller of Henry County and supposedly a relative of Henry Clay, and the other was Silas Cushenberry a Jewish-American slave trader of Clark County. Hughes’s maternal grandmother Mary Patterson was of African-American, French, English and Native American descent. One of the first women to attend Oberlin College, she first married Lewis Sheridan Leary, also of mixed race. Lewis Sheridan Leary subsequently joined John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859 and died from his wounds.
In 1869 the widow Mary Patterson Leary married again, into the elite, politically active Langston family. Her second husband was Charles Henry Langston, of African-American, Native American, and Euro-American ancestry. He and his younger brother John Mercer Langston worked for the abolitionist cause and helped lead the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society  in 1858. Charles Langston later moved to Kansas, where he was active as an educator and activist for voting and rights for African Americans. Charles and Mary’s daughter Caroline was the mother of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, the second child of school teacher Carrie (Caroline) Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes (1871–1934). Langston Hughes grew up in a series of Midwestern small towns. Hughes’s father left his family and later divorced Carrie, going to Cuba, and then Mexico, seeking to escape the enduring racism in the United States
After the separation of his parents, while his mother traveled seeking employment, young Langston Hughes was raised mainly by his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. Through the black American oral tradition and drawing from the activist experiences of her generation, Mary Langston instilled in her grandson a lasting sense of racial pride. He spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. After the death of his grandmother, he went to live with family friends, James and Mary Reed, for two years. In Big Sea he wrote, “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas”.
Later, Hughes lived again with his mother Carrie in Lincoln, Illinois. She had remarried when he was still an adolescent, and eventually they lived in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school.
While in grammar school in Lincoln, Hughes was elected class poet. Hughes stated that in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm
Hughes worked various odd jobs, before serving a brief tenure as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone in 1923, spending six months traveling to West Africa and Europe. In Europe, Hughes left the S.S. Malone for a temporary stay in Paris.
During his time in England in the early 1920s, Hughes became part of the black expatriate community. In November 1924, Hughes returned to the U. S. to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. Hughes worked at various odd jobs before gaining a white-collar job in 1925 as a personal assistant to the historian Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. As the work demands limited his time for writing, Hughes quit the position to work as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. There he encountered the poet Vachel Lindsay, with whom he shared some poems. Impressed with the poems, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a new black poet. By this time, Hughes’s earlier work had been published in magazines and was about to be collected into his first book of poetry.
The following year, Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University, a historically black university in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He joined the Omega Psi Phi fraternity. Thurgood Marshall, who later became an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, was an alumnus and classmate of Langston Hughes during his undergraduate studies at Lincoln University.
After Hughes earned a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929, he returned to New York. Except for travels to the Soviet Union and parts of the Caribbean, Hughes lived in Harlem as his primary home for the remainder of his life. During the 1930s, Hughes became a resident of Westfield, New Jersey.
Some academics and biographers today believe that Hughes was homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman. Hughes has cited him as an influence on his poetry. Hughes’s story “Blessed Assurance” deals with a father’s anger over his son’s effeminacy and “queerness”. The biographer Aldrich argues that, in order to retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted.
First published in The Crisis in 1921, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, which became Hughes’s signature poem, was collected in his first book of poetry The Weary Blues (1926). Hughes’s first and last published poems appeared in The Crisis; more of his poems were published in The Crisis than in any other journal. Hughes’s life and work were enormously influential during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, alongside those of his contemporaries, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Aaron Douglas. Except for McKay, they worked together also to create the short-lived magazine Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists.
Hughes and his contemporaries had different goals and aspirations than the black middle class. They criticized the men known as the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain LeRoy Locke, as being overly accommodating and assimilating eurocentric values and culture to achieve social equality.
Hughes and his fellows tried to depict the “low-life” in their art, that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata. They criticized the divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community. Hughes wrote what would be considered their manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” published in The Nation in 1926,
“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express
our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.
If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not,
it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.
The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people
are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure
doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow,
strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain
free within ourselves.
from The Nation in 1926
Hughes identified as unashamedly black at a time when blackness was démodé. He stressed the theme of “black is beautiful” as he explored the black human condition in a variety of depths. His main concern was the uplift of his people, whose strengths, resiliency, courage, and humor he wanted to record as part of the general American experience
His poetry and fiction portrayed the lives of the working-class blacks in America, lives he portrayed as full of struggle, joy, laughter, and music. Permeating his work is pride in the African-American identity and its diverse culture. “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America and obliquely that of all human kind,” Hughes is quoted as saying. He confronted racial stereotypes, protested social conditions, and expanded African America’s image of itself; a “people’s poet” who sought to reeducate both audience and artist by lifting the theory of the black aesthetic into reality.
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
“My People” in Crisis (October 1923
Hughes stressed a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism devoid of self-hate. His thought united people of African descent and Africa across the globe to encourage pride in their diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. Hughes was one of the few prominent black writers to champion racial consciousness as a source of inspiration for black artists. His African-American race consciousness and cultural nationalism would influence many foreign black writers, such as Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén, Léopold Sédar Senghor, and Aimé Césaire. Along with the works of Senghor, Césaire, and other French-speaking writers of Africa and of African descent from the Caribbean, such as René Maran from Martinique and Léon Damas from French Guiana in South America, the works of Hughes helped to inspire the Négritude movement in France. A radical black self-examination was emphasized in the face of European colonialism. In addition to his example in social attitudes, Hughes had an important technical influence by his emphasis on folk and jazz rhythms as the basis of his poetry of racial pride.
In 1930, his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. At a time before widespread arts grants, Hughes gained the support of private patrons and he was supported for two years prior to publishing this novel. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy, whose family must deal with a variety of struggles due to their race and class, in addition to relating to one another.
In 1931, Hughes helped form the “New York Suitcase Theater” with playwright Paul Peters, artist Jacob Burck, and writer (soon-to-be underground spy) Whittaker Chambers, an acquaintance from Columbia. In 1932, he was part of a board to produce a Soviet film on “Negro Life” with Malcolm Cowley, Floyd Dell, and Chambers.
In 1932, Hughes and Ellen Winter wrote a pageant to Caroline Decker in an attempt to celebrate her work with the striking coal miners of the Harlan County War, but it was never performed. It was judged to be a “long, artificial propaganda vehicle too complicated and too cumbersome to be performed.”
Maxim Lieber became his literary agent, 1933–1945 and 1949-1950. (Chambers and Lieber worked in the underground together around 1934–1935.)
Hughes’ first collection of short stories was published in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. He finished the book at a Carmel, California cottage provided for a year by Noel Sullivan, another patron. These stories are a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. Overall, they are marked by a general pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.
In 1935 Hughes received a Guggenheim Fellowship. The same year that Hughes established his theater troupe in Los Angeles, he realized an ambition related to films by co-writing the screenplay for Way Down South. Hughes believed his failure to gain more work in the lucrative movie trade was due to racial discrimination within the industry.
In Chicago, Hughes founded The Skyloft Players in 1941, which sought to nurture black playwrights and offer theater “from the black perspective.” Soon thereafter, he was hired to write a column for the Chicago Defender, in which he presented some of his “most powerful and relevant work”, giving voice to black people. The column ran for twenty years. In 1943, Hughes began publishing stories about a character he called Jesse B. Semple, often referred to and spelled “Simple”, the everyday black man in Harlem who offered musings on topical issues of the day. Although Hughes seldom responded to requests to teach at colleges, in 1947 he taught at Atlanta University. In 1949, he spent three months at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as a visiting lecturer. Between 1942 and 1949 Hughes was a frequent writer and served on the editorial board of Common Ground, a literary magazine focused on cultural pluralism in the United States published by the Common Council for American Unity (CCAU).
He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poetry, operas, essays, and works for children. With the encouragement of his best friend and writer, Arna Bontemps, and patron and friend, Carl Van Vechten, he wrote two volumes of autobiography, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, as well as translating several works of literature into English.
During the mid−1950s and −1960s, Hughes’ popularity among the younger generation of black writers varied even as his reputation increased worldwide. With the gradual advancement toward racial integration, many black writers considered his writings of black pride and its corresponding subject matter out of date. They considered him a racial chauvinist. He found some new writers, including James Baldwin, lacking in such pride, overintellectual in their work, and occasionally vulgar.
Hughes wanted young black writers to be objective about their race, but not to scorn it or flee it. He understood the main points of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, but believed that some of the younger black writers who supported it were too angry in their work. Hughes’s work Panther and the Lash, posthumously published in 1967, was intended to show solidarity with these writers, but with more skill and devoid of the most virulent anger and racial chauvinism some showed toward whites. Hughes continued to have admirers among the larger younger generation of black writers. He often helped writers by offering advice and introducing them to other influential persons in the literature and publishing communities. This latter group, including Alice Walker, whom Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated within their own work. One of these young black writers (Loften Mitchell) observed of Hughes,
“Langston set a tone, a standard of brotherhood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow. You never got from him, ‘I am the Negro writer,’ but only ‘I am a Negro writer.’ He never stopped thinking about the rest of us
On May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications after abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer, at the age of 65. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. It is the entrance to an auditorium named for him. The design on the floor is an African cosmogram titled Rivers. The title is taken from his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Within the center of the cosmogram is the line: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”.