- Virginia Johnson
"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." (From The Big Sea, one of Hughes’ autobiographies)
Full name: James Mercer Langston Hughes
Born: February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. Son of Carrie (Caroline) Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes.
Education: Columbia University, Lincoln University (B.A. 1929, Doctor of Literature 1943)
Known for: his writing—poetry, plays, essays, short stories, and novels. He was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and his work still inspires today.
Selected awards: Harmon Gold Medal for Literature (1930), Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Work (1935), Honorary Doctor of Letters, Lincoln University (1943), Anisfeld-Wolfe Award for Best Book on Racial Relations (1954), NAACP Spingarn Medal (1960)
Died: May 22, 1967, in New York, New York
The Busboy Poet
Langston Hughes had a difficult upbringing. His father separated from the family when Langston was young, and his mother left him in the care of his grandmother. He attended a mostly white high school, where he was active in journalism department. Like his father, he was proud of his African American heritage even when largely cut off from it and when it caused him problems. He wrote poetry early on. His poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which was written just after graduation, was picked up by the African American journal Crisis in 1921.
In his late teens, he had reconnected with his father, more or less, who had by now accumulated some wealth. He was willing to pay for Langston to go to college and get a degree in something practical, such as engineering, but not to finance the kind of liberal arts study his son wanted to pursue. At first Langston agreed to do what his father wanted, but after just a short time at Columbia University, he dropped out. He discovered the world of the Harlem Renaissance around him in New York before serving as a steward on board a freighter bound for Africa. After his return to the United States, he worked in a number of small jobs—and he kept writing. Eventually, he moved to Washington, D.C. and was working as a busboy at a hotel when his big break happened.
A famous white poet, Vachel Lindsay, was staying at the hotel. Langston took the opportunity to put three of his poems next to Lindsay’s plate. The next day, the newspaper proclaimed that Lindsay had found a “Negro busboy poet.” Much acclaim followed, including a full scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. By the time he graduated, he had already written two books.
He would collaborate with other black poets of the Harlem Renaissance, including Zora Neale Hurston, while continuing his own work. His travels to other countries, such as the Soviet Union, Haiti, and Japan, informed his world view, which naturally informed his work.
Poems, plays, short stories, and essays, Langston Hughes did it all. This writer’s words continue to inspire contemplation and understanding for all ages. Here is a list of works, including some for children and some for adults, by him and about him, that are available from our library.
Need solid sources for a research paper? Check out our online databases, including Biography in Context, Literature Criticism Online, and Literature Resource Center.
Photo Credit: Langston Hughes, by the Library of Congress, via Flickr (CC by 2.0)