Baylor College Medical School

51 2. Biography Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

51 2. Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. His parents separated soon afterward. He and his mother moved several times, eventually settling down in Cleveland, Ohio. A gifted student, Hughes started writing poetry in the eighth grade.

Hughes began publishing his first short stories in high school. During the summer following his graduation, his first poem, "The Negro Speaks of RIvers," appeared in Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP.

Hughes attended Columbia University from 1921 to 1922, then dropped out. He then worked at a number of different jobs, including as a steward on a ship traveling down the west coast of Africa. He was able to see Senegal, Nigeria, the Cameroons, Belgium Congo, Angola, and Guinea. He then lived in Paris for several months, working as a dishwasher in a cabaret. Later Hughes traveled to Spain, France, Italy, and Russia. During his travels, he sent a few of his poems and short stories back home, where they were published.

In 1924, Hughes returned to the United States. A major breakthrough in his career came in 1925 when Hughes spotted poet Vachel Lindsay dining at the Washington, D.C., restaurant where Hughes was working as a busboy. Hughes gave three of his poems to the famous poet. Lindsay recognized the youn man's talent and helped publicize Hughes's work. Hughes's first book of poety, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926.

With Lindsay's support, Hughes received a scholarship to Pennsylvania's Lincoln University and graduated in 1929. While there, Hughes discovered the New York neighborhood of Harlem. At that time, Harlem had become the center of African American culture during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. The possibilities of that community excited the young man.

In 1930 Hughes' first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published. During the 1940s, Hughes became known for a series of newspaper columns he composed featuring a streetwise, urban, African American named Jesse B. Semple, called Simple. This enduring character also appeared in many of Hughes's short stories.

Montage of a Dream Deferred, one of Hughes's most famous and admired works, was published in 1951. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry chose he poem's second line for the title of her celebrated 1959 play about the African American experience, A Raisin in the Sun. Called "the Negro Poet Laureate." Hughes continued to write until his death in Harlem in 1967.


2. Why do you think the Harlem Renaissance excited Hughes?

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THe depth of culture, music (Jazz) and community really excited him.

For a young man who was looking forward to a "new world," the whole idea of a "renaissance" in Harlem was stimulating and a source of material for his writing. The area of which he was such an important part was coming to life and was beginning to react to a country not at all like the country he would like to live in. To demonstrate the talent of all the people whose talent were developed through the Harlem Renaissance could be nothing but exciting.