10 Facts about Langston Hughes
Born in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes was one of the first African-American poets and writers to make a living doing what he was most passionate about: writing.
He rose to very lofty heights and quickly became critically acclaimed as the most influential writer during the Harlem Renaissance. Going by the epithets, “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” or “Poet Laureate of Harlem”, the writer gave the world famous poems like ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, ‘The Weary Blues’, ‘Let America Be America Again’, and ‘A Dream Deferred’.
Many of Hughes’ works were used to highlight the struggles that the ordinary working-class African-American folks of his era went through on a daily basis. He had such an amazing ability to draw on the experiences and challenges he had during his childhood years. What other things was Langston Hughes known for?
Below World History Edu presents to you 10 major facts that you probably didn’t know about Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes was prolific, writing over a dozen volumes of poetry
In his about four-decade writing career, it has been estimated that Langston Hughes penned over a dozen volumes of poetry, two novels, two autobiographies, and nine children’s books. Those weren’t all his works though. Hughes was also credited with writing about two dozen plays and many radio and television scripts.
Did you know: Langston Hughes translated the works of many acclaimed writers, including Federico García Lorca and Jacques Roumain?
His poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was written on his train ride to Mexico
While growing up, Langston Hughes’ decision to earn his living from writing poems and scripts was not the most welcoming of news to his family, especially his father. However, that all changed when his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in the June 1921 copy of Crisis magazine, a magazine ran by W.E.B. Dubois. The poem was perhaps what launched Hughes’ writing career, convincing his father that Hughes truly had the talent to excel in his chosen field.
According to his biographers, Hughes penned down “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” while aboard a train ride to visit his father who was by then in Mexico. According to Hughes, the moment of inspiration, or magic, came when the train was approaching St. Louis, as the sun set on the banks of the famous Mississippi River.
Did you know: Initially Langston Hughes’ father wanted him to become an engineer and study at a university abroad?
Langston Hughes walked the title of his second autobiography I Wonder as I Wander
Some historians have stated that one of the reasons why Langston Hughes was such a prolific writer was because of his numerous journeys abroad. The writer and playwright visited several countries in Central Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, the Far East and Europe.
Hughes’ first trip to Africa came in his 20s when took a job as a ship deckhand. This afforded him the opportunity to travel to many African countries. He also had memorable experiences visiting European countries like Italy, France and the Netherlands.
In the early 1930s, Hughes took a trip through the Caribbean, visiting places in countries such as Cuba and Haiti. His longest time abroad was perhaps when he served as a journalist for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper and other newspapers, covering the Spanish Civil War.
His maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, played a significant role in his upbringing
In his autobiographies, Hughes showered heaps of praises on his grandmother Mary Langston for stepping into the shoes of his parents who pretty much were absent from his life growing up. Who was Mary Langston? Not only was Mary the first African-American woman to enroll at Oberlin College in Ohio, she was also the wife of an associate of John Brown, the infamous abolitionist leader of the 19th century.
Of mixed race descent, Mary imbued in Langston Hughes a sense of black pride and respect for the downtrodden black people. She was the reason why he grew up to be full of praise for the hard work, everyday struggles and joy of the working-class black people.
Growing up, Hughes was fascinated by the stories that his Mary told him, most of them being about his family lineage, their struggles and heroism right from the years of slavery down to the Reconstruction era. Those stories undoubtedly shaped the person that Hughes went on to become. It came as no surprise that he paid immense homage to his grandmother, who died in his early teens, in his poem titled “Aunt Sue’s Stories”.
His first major poem was published when he was 19
After stacking up so much experience as the poet of his class and the contributor of the literary magazine of his school, Langston Hughes entered his late teens with a very refined writing prowess. And although a number of his poems got rejected by poetry magazines, his big breakthrough came when he was about 19. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in the June 1921 copy of Crisis magazine.
Five years later, Hughes saw his first book published. The book was his first volume of poetry, titled The Weary Blues. It contained themes of black struggles, black pride and culture.
Langston Hughes appeared before a Senate Committee
Prior to appearing before a U.S. Senate Committee in 1953, Langston Hughes is believed to have taken his time and written a five-page statement explaining his reasons for supporting left political doctrines. Hughes had not hidden his admiration for some socialist policies that many politicians on Capitol Hill found a bit disturbing. Hence he was invited to testify before the Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations.
Senators grilled him on some of his slightly controversial poems such as “One More ‘S’ in the U.S.A.”. Hughes was also asked several times whether he was a member of the Communist Party, to which he emphatically responded with a no.
The decision to invite Hughes to testify was triggered by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957) who throughout the early 1950s levelled accusations upon accusations that communist elements had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. As chairman of the Senate’s subcommittee on Investigations, Senator McCarthy presided over a period known as the Red Scare, which saw LGBT federal employees unduly targeted, with some of them even losing their jobs.
The idea to write his first memoir was given to him when he was 23
At just the age of 23, Langston Hughes was encouraged by his mentor called Carl Van Vechten to write his first memoir. Hughes was taken aback by the suggestion of Vechten, considering the fact that he was still in the early years of his career. It would take about 15 years before he put out his first memoir, The Big Sea.
The reason why he was encouraged to write his memoir at that early age stemmed from the amazing autobiographical essay he penned down. The essay, which was attached to his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, completely took Carl Van Vechten by surprise. Therefore, Vechten encouraged him to turn the essay into full-fledged memoir. However, Hughes declined, stating that he was still too young.
He dropped out of Columbia University in order to travel the world
After caving into his father’s request for him to study engineering in exchange for financial assistance,
While studying at Columbia University, Hughes got very disenchanted with the course and decided to drop out of school. He was at Columbia for about a year and had maintained a B+ grade average. However, he quickly realized that he was spending a lot of time hanging out in Harlem neighborhood, soaking in the culture and artistic atmosphere that was flourishing at the time. The environment there was starkly different from the racial prejudice he felt on the campus of the university.
After he dropped out in 1922, he went on to take a number of jobs in New York. In 1923, he sailed to West Africa and Spain on board the S.S. Malone as crewman for a shipping company. He also spent some time in Paris, where he became romantically involved with Anne Marie Coussey – a British-educated African from the Gold Coast (now Ghana).
He was a columnist for the Chicago Defender
Another very productive phase in Langston Hughes’ career was when he worked as a columnist for the Chicago Defender. He came up with a character called Jesse B. Semple, also known as “Simple” – an ordinary African American who tries to navigate the daily challenges that faced working-class Black families.
As a matter of fact, some of his most famous works came during this period. His column objectively discussed racial issues and a host of other socio-economic problems in general. Hughes wrote a number of spin offs, including books and plays, of the character known as “Simple”. His goal was to use the character to amplify the voice of Black people, enabling them to take immense pride in their race, identity and culture.
Some historians claim that Langston Hughes was gay
Due to some obvious references to male love interests in his poems and short stories, some histories opine that Langston Hughes was gay. Apart from the romantic relationship he had while in France, there was no known close female partner in his life. Also, Langston Hughes never married. Moreover, many of his friends were known to be or either perceived as gay – for example Zell Ingram and Ferdinand Smith.
- After battling prostate cancer for quite some time, the renowned African-American writer and poet died on May 22, 1967. The 66-year-old was cremated and his ashes interred at the entrance of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.
- His Paternal great-grandparents were slave owners in Kentucky. For example, one of them was called Sam Clay – a Scottish-American whiskey distiller who was related to the famous Senator Henry Clay.
- His maternal great-grandmothers were enslaved Africans.
- At Lincoln University, Langston Hughes was a classmate of Thurgood Marshall – the first African-American Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
- Initially, a great number of his works were published in the newspaper of the Communist Party of the United State (CPUSA). He was also a member of communist organizations such as John Reed clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights. At one point in time, he even supported Joseph Stalin’s purges.
- Initially, he was against the U.S. taking part in WWII; he also did not want Blacks to enlist in the army because of the discrimination many of them faced due to Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the South. Hughes, however, later made a U-turn and supported the U.S. involvement in WWII.