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Langston Hughes (1902- 1967)

Will Geer

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an African-American poet, novelist, playwright, columnist, abolitionist, and social activist.

Hughes was born on February 1st, in Joplin, Missouri. He was the second child of James Nathaniel Hughes, a storekeeper, and Caroline Mercer Langston a school teacher. Hughes’s father James left his family and went to Cuba, then Mexico seeking to escape the enduring racism in the United States. His mother Caroline traveled from city to city looking for employment. Hughes parents later divorced, and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary, in Lawrence, Kansas. After the death of his grandmother, he lived with family friends, Reeds, for two years. At the age of 13, he began living again with his mother, and her second husband in Lincoln, Illinois, then in Cleveland, Ohio, where Hughes attended high school. During this time, he wrote for the school newspaper, 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 in high school.

In 1920, Hughes began living with his father in Mexico, who worked there as a cattle rancher. His father wanted him to study engineering, but Hughes wanted to be a lawyer. Eventually Hughes and his father came to a compromise: Hughes would study engineering, as long as he could attend Columbia University. His father provided his tuition; Hughes attended Columbia University for one year, and wanted to fulfill his desire to become a lawyer, but he was denied to take the bar exam because he was black.

In 1922, he left university and spent most of his time in Harlem, where he took part in more appealing jazz and blues music. Hughes was considered one of the leading voices in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

In 1923, Hughes willing to see the world, enlisted as a steward on a freighter, S. S. Malone bound to West Africa. He left S. S. Malone in Europe for temporary stay in Spain, Italy, France, Netherlands, and UK. He worked as a doorman, and bouncer of a night club, before returning back to New York City in 1924.

Hughes was one the first African-American authors who could support himself by his writings and provide tuition for studying in Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. After three years, Hughes took a B. A. degree of Arts in 1929.

During the 30s, Hughes often traveled across the United States on lecture tours. He also traveled abroad to the Soviet Union, China, Japan, and Haiti. In 1932 he was part of a group of 40 black people who traveled extensively through the Soviet Union, where he praised the country’s treatment of racial minorities. On his return to the US, Hughes published “A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia” (1934). While in Moscow, Hughes completed his translation of Vladimir Mayakovski’s poems, “Black and White”, and “Syphilis”.

Hughes and his group had originally been invited to the Soviet Union to work on a movie about the lives of African-American workers in the United States, but the Soviets dropped the film idea due to their 1933 success in getting the US Government to recognize the Soviet Union and open an embassy in Moscow. Soviets didn’t want to ruin their newly established diplomatic relations with the United States. At the time Hughes and his comrades were not informed of the project cancellation reasons. Later Hughes and Arthur Koestler worked it out for themselves.

It was in Moscow that Hughes met an Afro-Chinese ballerina, Sylvia Chen and started an affair. Sylvia’s father, Eugene Chen became Foreign Minister of China during Sun Yat-Sen, first president and founding father of the Republic of China.

In August 1937, by the initiatives of communist-led organizations, Hughes traveled to Spain and served as a war correspondent, during the Spanish Civil War. His reports were published in several progressive American newspapers. During the Spanish Civil War, many African-Americans were fighting alongside the Popular Front, against fascism.

Hughes regularly wrote for the Marxist journal, the New Masses, and his poetry was frequently published in the Communist Party USA newspaper.

Hughes was also involved in the initiations supported by the communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys.

The Scottsboro Boys were nine black teenagers wrongly accused of raping two white women in a freight train travelling between Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee. The train was stopped, searched, and the Boys were arrested in Paint Rock, Alabama in 1931. The same year their lengthy trial took place in Scottsboro, Alabama.

Hughes also engaged in the league of Struggle for Negro Rights, and organizations such as John Reed Clubs.

Hughes firstly did not favour black American participation in WWII, because of discrimination, racial segregation, and disenfranchisement especially throughout the South. He later supported black involvement in the War, because he thought that war service would aid their struggle for civil rights at home.

Contrary to the common propaganda, civil rights movements in the beginning were secular and non-religious. African-American activists, writers, artists, and … like Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Lorraine Hansberry, Richard Wright, and A. Philip Randolph provided a foundation for nontheistic civil rights movements.

In 1948, Hughes publicly endorsed Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace for president, and in 1949 he condemned the persecution of leaders and members of Communist Party USA, under the Alien Registration Act.

In March 1953, at the time of McCarthyism, Hughes was summoned before the House of Un-American Activities Committee; he refused to release any names.

Since then until his death, Hughes publish many works, including several books in his “Simple” series, English translation of Federico Garcia Lorca, and Gabriela Mistral poems, another collection of his own poetry, and the second part of his autobiography “ I Wonder As I Wander”.

On May 22nd, Hughes died in Polyclinic Hospital in New York City from post-surgical complications of prostate cancer. His funeral after a tribute to his poetry was filled with jazz and blues music. His ashes were interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Harlem.

His famous poem democracy was written in 1949:

Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Nor ever
Through compromise and fear.

I have as much right
As the other fellow has
To stand
On my two feet
And own the land.

I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.

Tomorrow is another day.

I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.

I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.

Is a strong seed
In a great need.

I live here, too.

I want freedom
Just as you.

Langston Hughes, Democracy, 1949


Poetry collections:

  • Negro Speaks of Rivers, 1921

  • The Weary Blues, 1926

  • Fine Clothes to the Jew, 1927

  • The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, 1931

  • Dear Lovely Death, 1931

  • Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse, 1932

  • The Dream keeper and Other Poems, 1932

  • Let America Be America Again, 1938

  • Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942

  • Freedom’s Plow, 1943

  • Jim Crow’s Last Stand, 1943

  • Laments for Dark People, 1944

  • Fields of Wonder, 1947

  • Master of Dew/ Jacques Roumain, 1947

  • Cuba Libre/ Nicholas Guillen, 1948

  • One-Way Ticket, 1949

  • Montage of a Dream Deferred, 1951

  • Selected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1958

  • Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz, 1961

  • The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, 1967

  • The collected Poems of Langston Hughes, 1994

Novels and Short Stories:

  • Not Without Laughter, 1930

  • The ways of White Folks, 1934

  • Laughing to Keep from Crying, 1952

  • Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955

  • Tambourines to Glory, 1958

  • Something in Common and Other Stories, 1963

  • Short Stories of Langston Hughes, 1996

Writings and Articles:

  • The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Article in the Nation, 1926

  • My Adventure as a Social Poet, Phylon, 3rd Quarter, 1947

  • The First Book of Jazz, 1955

  • Famous Negro Music Makers, 1955

  • The Book of Negro Folklore, 1958

  • The Langston Hughes Reader, 1958

  • Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings. Lawrence Hill, 1973

  • The Collected Works of Langston Hughes: Missouri, 2001

Major playwrights:

  • The Golden Piece, 1921

  • Mule Bone, 1931

  • Mulatto, 1935

  • Troubled Island, with William Grant Still, 1936

  • Little Ham, 1936

  • Emperor of Haiti, 1936

  • Don’t You Want to be Free? 1938

  • Simply Heavenly, 1957

  • Black Nativity, 1961

  • Five Plays by Langston Hughes, 1963

  • Jericho Jim Crow, 1964

Non-fiction books:

  • The Big Sea, 1940

  • Famous American Negroes, 1954

  • A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, with Milton Meltzer, 1956

  • Famous Negro Heroes of America, 1958

  • Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored people), 1962

Books for children:

  • Popo and Fifina, with Ama Bontemps, 1932

  • The First Book of Negroes, 1952

  • The First Book of Jazz, 1954

  • Marian Anderson, with Steven C. Tracy, 1954

  • The First Book of Rhythms, 1954

  • The First Book of West Indies, 1956

  • The First Book of Africa, 1964

  • Black Misery, Illustrated by Arouni, 1969

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