While in grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, he was designated class poet. Hughes stated in retrospect that this was because of the stereotype that African Americans have rhythm. "I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows — except us — that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet." During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he wrote for the school paper, edited the yearbook, and began to write his first short stories, poetry, and dramatic plays.
His first piece of jazz poetry, When Sue Wears Red, was written while he was still in high school. It was during this time that he discovered his love of books. From this early period in his life, Hughes would cite as influences on his poetry the American poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Carl Sandburg. Hughes spent a brief period of time with his father in Mexico in 1919. The relationship between him and his father was troubled, causing Hughes a degree of dissatisfaction that led him to contemplate suicide at least once. Upon graduating from high school in June of 1920, Hughes returned to live with his father, hoping to convince him to provide money to attend Columbia University.
Hughes later said that, prior to arriving in Mexico again, "I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn't understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much." Initially, his father hoped for Langston to attend a university anywhere but in the United States, and to study for a career in engineering. On these grounds, he was willing to provide financial assistance to his son. James Hughes did not support his son's desire to be a writer. Eventually, Langston and his father came to a compromise. Langston would study engineering so long as he could attend Columbia. His tuition provided, Hughes left his father after more than a year of living with him. While at Columbia in 1921, Hughes managed to maintain a B+ grade average. He left in 1922 because of racial prejudice within the institution, and his interests revolved more around the neighborhood of Harlem than his studies, though he continued writing poetry.
Hughes worked various odd jobs before serving a brief tenure as a crewman aboard the S.S. Malone in 1923, spending 6 months traveling to West Africa and Europe. In Europe, Hughes left the S.S. Malone for a temporary stay in Paris. Unlike specific writers of the post-World War I era who became identified as the Lost Generation, writers such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hughes instead spent time in Paris during the early 1920s becoming 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 again found work doing various odd jobs before gaining white-collar employment in 1925 as a personal assistant to the scholar Carter G. Woodson within the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
Not satisfied with the demands of the work and time constraints this position with Carter placed on the hours he spent writing, Hughes quit this job for one as a busboy in a hotel. It was while working as a busboy that Hughes would encounter the poet Vachel Lindsay. Impressed with the poems Hughes showed him, Lindsay publicized his discovery of a new black poet, though by this time Hughes' earlier work had already been published in magazines and was about to be collected into his first book of poetry.
The following year, Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University, PA, a HBCU. Hughes received a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929 and a Litt.D. in 1943 from Lincoln. A second honorary doctorate would be awarded to him in 1963 by Howard University, another HBCU. Except for travels that included parts of the Caribbean and West Indies, Harlem was Hughes’s primary home for the remainder of his life.
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 leading to the auditorium named for him within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Many of Hughes' papers reside in the Langston Hughes Memorial Library on the campus of Lincoln University, PA as well as at the James Weldon Johnson Collection within the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
First debuting in The Crisis in 1921, the prose that would become the signature poem of Hughes appeared in his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, published in 1926, The Negro Speaks of Rivers:
I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
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.
I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Hughes' 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 who collectively, with the exception of McKay, created the short lived magazine Fire!! Devoted to Younger Negro Artists. Hughes and his contemporaries were often in conflict with the goals and aspirations of the black middle class and the three considered the midwives of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Alain Locke, who they accused of being overly fulsome in accommodating and assimilating eurocentric values and culture for social equality. Of primary conflict were the depictions of the "low-life", that is, the real lives of blacks in the lower social-economic strata and the superficial divisions and prejudices based on skin color within the black community. Hughes wrote what would be considered the manifesto for himself and his contemporaries 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.
Hughes was unashamedly black at a time when blackness was demode, and, he didn’t go much beyond the themes 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 who he judged himself the adequate appreciator of and whose strengths, resiliency, courage, and humor he wanted to record as part of the general American experience. Thus, his poetry and fiction centered generally on insightful views of the working class lives of 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. Therefore, in his work 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. An expression of this is the poem My People:
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.
Moreover, Hughes stressed the importance of a racial consciousness and cultural nationalism absent of self-hate that united people of African descent and Africa across the globe and encouraged pride in their own diverse black folk culture and black aesthetic. Langston Hughes was one of the few black writers of any consequence 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.
With Senghor and Césaire and other French speaking writers of Africa and of African descent from the Caribbean like René Maran from Martinique and Léon Damas from French Guiana in South America, the works of Hughes helped to inspire the concept that became the Négritude movement in France where a radical black self-examination was emphasized in the face of European colonialism. Langston Hughes was not only a role model for his calls for black racial pride instead of assimilation, but the most important technical influence in 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. The protagonist of the story is a boy named Sandy whose family must deal with a variety of struggles imposed upon them due to their race and class in society in addition to relating to one another. Hughes first collection of short stories came in 1934 with The Ways of White Folks. These stories provided a series of vignettes revealing the humorous and tragic interactions between whites and blacks. Overall, these stories are marked by a general pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.
He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. In 1938, Hughes would establish the Harlem Suitcase Theater followed by the New Negro Theater in 1939 in Los Angeles, and the Skyloft Players in Chicago in 1941. The same year Hughes established his threatre troupe in Los Angeles, his ambition to write for the movies materialized when he co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South. Further hopes by Hughes to write for the lucrative movie trade were thwarted because of racial discrimination within the industry.
Through the black publication Chicago Defender, Hughes in 1943 gave creative birth to Jesse B. Semple, often referred to and spelled Simple, the everyday black man in Harlem who offered musings on topical issues of the day. He was offered to teach at a number of colleges, but seldom did. In 1947, Hughes taught a semester at the predominantly black Atlanta University. Hughes, in 1949, spent three months at the integrated Laboratory School of the University of Chicago as a "Visiting Lecturer on Poetry."
He wrote novels, short stories, plays, poetry, operas, essays, works for children, and, with the encouragement of his best friend and writer, Arna Bontemps, and patron and friend, Carl Van Vechten, two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, as well as translating several works of literature into English. Much of his writing was inspired by the rhythms and language of the black church, and, the blues and jazz of that era, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit; an example is "Harlem" (sometimes called "Dream Deferred") from Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), from which a line was taken for the title of the play A Raisin in the Sun.
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
During the mid 1950s and 1960s, Hughes popularity among the younger generation of black writers varied 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 in turn found a number of writers like James Baldwin lacking in this same pride, over intellectualizing in their work, and occasionally vulgar.
Hughes wanted young black writers to be objective about their race, but not scorn or to flee it. With the Black Power movement of the 1960s, though he was able to understand the main points of it, he believed that some of the younger black writers who supported it were too angry in their work. Hughes' posthumously published Panther and the Lash in 1967 was intended to show solidarity and understanding with these writers but with more skill and absent of the most virile anger and terse racial chauvinism some showed toward whites. Hughes still continued to have admirers among the larger younger generation of black writers who he often helped by offering advice to and introducing to other influential persons in the literature and publishing communities.
This latter group, who happened to include Alice Walker who Hughes discovered, looked upon Hughes as a hero and an example to be emulated in degrees and tones within their own work. One of these young black writers 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."
In 1960, the NAACP awarded Hughes the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961. In 1973, the first Langston Hughes Medal was awarded by the City College of New York.
Hughes, like many black writers and artists of his time, was drawn to the promise of Communism as an alternative to a segregated America. Many of his lesser-known political writings have been collected in two volumes published by the University of Missouri Press and reflect his attraction to Communism. An example is the poem A New Song:
I speak in the name of the black millions
Awakening to action.
Let all others keep silent a moment
I have this word to bring,
This thing to say,
This song to sing:
Bitter was the day
When I bowed my back
Beneath the slaver's whip.
That day is past.
Bitter was the day
When I saw my children unschooled,
My young men without a voice in the world,
My women taken as the body-toys
Of a thieving people.
That day is past.
Bitter was the day, I say,
When the lyncher's rope
Hung about my neck,
And the fire scorched my feet,
And the oppressors had no pity,
And only in the sorrow songs
Relief was found.
That day is past.
I know full well now
Only my own hands,
Dark as the earth,
Can make my earth-dark body free.
O thieves, exploiters, killers,
No longer shall you say
With arrogant eyes and scornful lips:
"You are my servant,
I, the free!"
That day is past-
In many mouths-
Dark mouths where red tongues burn
And white teeth gleam-
New words are formed,
With the past
With the dream.
They sweep the earth-
And White World
Shall be one!
The Worker's World!
The past is done!
A new dream flames
In 1932, Hughes became part of a group of disparate blacks who went to the Soviet Union to make a film depicting the plight of most blacks living in the United States at the time. The film was never made, but Hughes was given the opportunity to travel extensively through the Soviet Union and to the Soviet controlled regions in Central Asia, the latter parts usually closed to Westerners. In Turkmenistan, Hughes met and befriended the Hungarian polymath Arthur Koestler. Hughes would also manage to travel to China and Japan before returning home to the States.
Hughes' poetry was frequently published in the CPUSA newspaper and he was involved in initiatives supported by Communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys. Partly as a show of support for the Republican faction during the Spanish Civil War, in 1937 Hughes travelled to Spain as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American and other various African American newspapers. Hughes was also involved in other Communist-led organizations like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, even though he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant.
He signed a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin's purges and joined the American Peace Mobilization in 1940 working to keep the U.S. from participating in World War II. Hughes initially did not favor black American involvement in the war because of the irony of U.S. Jim Crow laws existing at the same time a war was being fought against Fascism and the Axis Powers. He came to support the war effort and black American involvement in it after coming to understand that blacks would also be contributing to their struggle for civil rights at home.
Hughes was accused of being a Communist by many on the political right, but he always denied it. When asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote "it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept." He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Following his appearance, he distanced himself from Communism and was subsequently rebuked by some who had previously supported him on the Radical Left. Over time, Hughes would distance himself from his most radical poems. In 1959 came the publication of his Selected Poems. Absent from this group of poems was his most controversial work.
In visual media, Hughes has been the subject of two theatrical plays by African American playwrights whose subject matter concerned in part or whole the fact of his being gay, Hannibal of the Alps by Michael Dinwiddie and Paper Armor by Eisa Davis. In the 1989 film, Looking for Langston by British filmmaker Isaac Julien, Hughes is reclaimed as a black gay icon from where there is a consistent attempt to ignore or at least downplay his homosexuality because he is such a towering figure in African American literature; his icon status among the African American community is contingent on his heterosexuality.
It has been noted that to retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted. Academics and biographers today acknowledge that Hughes was a homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman, whose work Hughes cited as another influence on his poetry, and most patently in the short story Blessed Assurance which deals with a father's anger over his son's effeminacy and queerness. Arnold Rampersad, the primary biographer of Hughes, determined that Hughes exhibited a preference for other African American men in his work and life. This love of black men is evidenced in a number of reported unpublished poems to a black male lover.
Also in visual media, the diminutive 5'4" Hughes was portrayed in the 2004 film Brother to Brother by 6'1" actor Daniel Sunjata. Prior to this film, in 2003, Hughes was portrayed as a teenager by actor Gary LeRoi Gray in the short film Salvation that was based on a portion of his autobiography the Big Sea.
Regarding documentary film, the New York Center for Visual History included Langston Hughes as part of its Voices & Visions series of notable writers. Hughes' Dream Harlem by producer and director Jamal Joseph and distributed through California Newsreel is another such film where Hughes' steadfast racial pride and artistic independence is discussed.