Langston Hughes was not only a famous black poet, novelist, playwright, and journalist who helped define New York’s Harlem Renaissance, he was also an activist who reflected the multifaceted life of the black community. Often called “the people’s poet”, he had an uncanny talent for depicting the joy, sorrow, struggles and victories of his people in his writings.
Born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902 (or 1901, as recent evidence suggests), Hughes was raised in Lawrence, Kansas by his grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston. Educator and abolitionist, she taught him the importance of loving each other despite the racism of society; as a result, Hughes never stopped fighting for systemic change and finding how he could use his gifts to create a more just world. Here are seven things you need to know about Langston Hughes.
1. Langston Hughes was a teenager when he wrote one of his most popular poems.
Langston Hughes was only 17 when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, one of his most recognizable poems. It was published the following year in the June 1921 issue of Crisis, a magazine founded by W. E. B. Du Bois as the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In May 1941, Hughes wrote Du Bois a heartfelt letter of thanks in honor of the 20th anniversary of the publication of his first poem.
2. He first went to engineering school.
Before Hughes’s career as a poet took off, he was an engineering student at Columbia University in New York. He attended the School of Mining, Engineering and Chemistry in 1921 after his father convinced him to choose a stable career. While Hughes performed well in school and maintained a B+ average, he dropped out after spending just one year in the program. He then changed universities and majors to study English at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
3. Hughes comes from a family of activists.
Hughes comes from an impressive line of abolitionists and activists. Her maternal grandfather, Charles Henry Langston, advocated for equal rights, education, and suffrage in Ohio and Kansas for 30 years. [PDF]. Hughes’ great-uncle, John Mercer Langston, was also an abolitionist, as well as a lawyer, politician and diplomat who was one of the first black men in the United States elected to public office when elected Township Clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855. He later became the first black man elected to Congress from Virginia, where he served during the 51st Congress from 1889 to 1891.
4. He was a pioneer of jazz poetry.
In 1958, Hughes recited his poem “The Weary Blues” about Canada The 7 o’clock show with jazz accompaniment from the Doug Parker Band. “The Weary Blues” was originally published in Opportunity, a magazine founded by the National Urban League, and ended up winning Poem of the Year in 1925 when Hughes was just 23 years old. It was one of many poems he wrote that used a rhythm similar to that of jazz music. Hughes’ jazz poetry – a style he pioneered – reflected the black experience in many ways, and he would later say: “[Jazz] to me it is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom that beats in the black soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subways and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed up in a smile.
5. Hughes went to the Soviet Union to make a movie about being black in America.
Hughes and 21 other black creators traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 to participate in a film about black life in the American South titled Black and white. Activist Louise Thompson – a longtime friend of Hughes – assembled the cast and envisioned the project as a more honest portrayal of black people’s struggles than Hollywood was capable of at the time.
The whole project quickly fell apart, with some of the black talent involved claiming the Soviets suppressed the film in order to ‘curry favor with Washington’, according to The New York Times. Still, Hughes blamed it all on simple creative differences, later writing of the problem: “O, Movies. Temperaments. Artists. Ambition. Scenarios. Directors, producers, advisors, actors, censors, changes, revisions, conferences. It’s a complicated art, cinema. I’m happy to write poems.
6. He was also a journalist.
While most people know Hughes for his work as a poet, he was also a journalist for 20 years, writing primarily for the Chicago Defendera long-running black media outlet that started in 1905. In 1937 Hughes traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the African American from Baltimore newspaper. During this time, he covered black Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain alongside the left-leaning Republican government as part of the International Brigades. (Among these volunteer troops, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade included black commanders leading integrated troops.) In addition to articles, Hughes wrote two poems titled “Postcard from Spain” and “Letter from Spain” while he was covering the war.
7. Hughes’ poems still appear in the media today.
Langston Hughes’ work continues to inspire artists in all kinds of mediums today. The American cartoonist Stephen Bentley, creator of the Grass & Jamal comic, included Hughes’ poem “Acceptance” in the March 4, 2010 comic strip and “Still here” in the March 27, 2010 comic strip. Award-winning illustrator Afua Richardson, who has worked for Marvel, DC and Image, has also created comic panels based on the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for NPR in 2014. She later used the illustrated panels to create a video that includes her original artwork with an audio playback of the poem.
New Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot on Peacock also pays homage to Hughes, using his century-old poem, “Mother to Son” in a trailer for the dramatized version of the sitcom. The 1922 poem is read by April Parker Jones (super girl), who plays Will’s mother (Jabari Banks). The poem signifies the darker tone of the 2022 series and how it delves into the devastation of class division within the black community and black life in an anti-black America.