Celebrating Black History Month: Meet Langston Hughes

Photograph by Carl Van Vechten/Carl Van Vechten Trust/ Beinecke Library, Yale

Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, fiction writer and playwright whose African American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. While his life and work are most closely associated with New York City, he spent part of his childhood in central Illinois.

Hughes was born Feb. 1, 1902 in Joplin, Mo. His parents divorced when he was a young child and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was 13, when he moved to Lincoln, Ill., to live with his mother and her husband. They eventually relocated to Cleveland, Ohio, where Langston graduated from high school. He then spent a year at Columbia University in New York and went on to finish his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.

Hughes’s first work of poetry was the “The Weary Blues,” published in 1926. His first novel, “Not without Laughter,” was published in 1930 and won the Harmon gold medal for literature. His book-length poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred” was published in 1951. As the civil rights movement was gaining traction, he wrote a weekly column from 1942 to 1962 for The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper.

In addition to gifting us with a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: “Simple Speaks His Mind “(Simon & Schuster, 1950); “Simple Stakes a Claim” (Rinehart, 1957); “Simple Takes a Wife” (Simon & Schuster, 1953); and “Simple’s Uncle Sam” (Hill and Wang, 1965). He edited the anthologies “The Poetry of the Negro” and “The Book of Negro Folklore,” wrote an acclaimed autobiography, “The Big Sea” (Knopf, 1940), and co-wrote the play “Mule Bone” (HarperCollins, 1991) with Zora Neale Hurston.

Hughes died on May 22, 1967 in New York from complications from prostate cancer. His funeral was filled with jazz and blues music, a tribute to his poetic life. His residence at 20 E. 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the city of New York Preservation Commission, which also renamed 127th Street to Langston Hughes Place.

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken winged bird that cannot fly.”