Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Sharissa. Sharissa Wonders, “Who was Langston Hughes?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Sharissa!
The African-American experience in America has been written about by many people from a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds. From the 1920s through the 1960s, though, there was one African-American poet, novelist, and playwright whose voice consistently chronicled the experience of the average African-American: Langston Hughes.
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Hughes' parents separated shortly after his birth. His father moved to Mexico while his mother traveled frequently, leaving Hughes to be raised primarily by his grandmother.
Hughes' grandmother passed away when he was a teenager, and he moved in with his mother, eventually settling down in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes began to write poetry as a teenager after teachers introduced him to the influential work of poets such as Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.
Hughes graduated high school in 1920 and spent a year in Mexico with his father. Around this same time, his poem called "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" was published in The Crisis magazine. It received high praise and Hughes returned to the U.S. and enrolled at Columbia University.
During his one year at Columbia, Hughes became a primary contributor to the artistic and cultural movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Wanting to see the world, Hughes dropped out of Columbia and enlisted as a steward on a freighter that would take him to Africa and Europe.
Hughes continued to write poetry and, upon his return to the U.S. in 1924, he was working in Washington, D.C., when he crossed paths with famous poet Vachel Lindsay. Lindsay was impressed with his work and helped to promote Hughes' poetry to a wider audience.
Hughes' poetry won more awards and helped him earn a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. With the help of novelist and literary critic Carl Van Vechten, Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926.
Hughes soon decided that he could make a living as a writer. Over the coming years, he would publish additional volumes of poetry, novels, short stories, newspaper and magazine articles, and plays for Broadway. His prolific output over the course of five decades earned rave reviews from critics and readers alike.
Hughes died in 1967 in New York City. His ashes were buried beneath the entrance of the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. An inscription from his poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" marks the spot: "My soul has grown deep like the rivers."
Hughes' home at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem was given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission in 1981. It was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. East 127th Street in Harlem was also renamed "Langston Hughes Place."
Today, Langston Hughes is fondly remembered for his many works that gave colorful insight into the life experiences of African-Americans in America during the 1920s through the 1960s. Hughes is also well-known for his use of jazz rhythms and dialect that spoke powerfully to the common man.