Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902, - May 22, 1967) was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist. He was born in Joplin, Missouri. He was raised by his grandmother, and when he was thirteen years old he began to write poetry.

Hughes's grandmother influenced his life and imagination deeply. She took him to Oswatomie where she shared the platform as an honored guest of Teddy Roosevelt. (She was the last surviving widow of the 1859 John Brown raid.)

Hughes's early life prepared him well to write about humanity, for as a child and young man he lived in many places and met many different kinds of people. His years spent growing up were, altogether, not very happy, but they provided him with experiences that many people never have. It was in Lincoln, Illinois where he stayed with his mother (who had remarried a man named Homer Clark II) that he discovered books. Upon his graduation in 1919, Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father. This made him severely unhappy; most of the time Langston, depressed, contemplated suicide.

After this, he spent a year attending Columbia University.

Like many creative Americans at the time, such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes spent time in Paris, France. During the height of the great gathering of minds in Montparnasse, for most of 1924, he lived at 15, Rue de Nollet.

In November 1924 he moved to Washington D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, THE WEARY BLUES was published in 1926. In 1929 he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1930, his first novel NOT WITHOUT LAUGHTER won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Hughes, who claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties.

He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of blues and jazz and the influence they had on his writing, as in "Montage of a Dream Deferred", from which a line was taken for the title of the play RAISIN IN THE SUN.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over-
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Many of his poems are in the form of blues lyrics, such as the opening verse to "Po' Boy Blues":

When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
When I was home de
Sunshine seemed like gold.
Since I come up North de
Whole damn world's turned cold.

His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contribution of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Langston Hughes's art reflects this deep understanding of black people. But it also expresses the love for them. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

Much of Langston s poetry tries to capture the rhythms of blues music, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit. His published works through 1965 include nine volumes of poetry, eight of short stories and sketches, two novels, seven children's books, a number of plays, essays, and translations, and a two-volume autobiography. Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961.

Hughes, like many black writers and artists of his time, was drawn to the promise of socialism as an alternative to a segregated America. He traveled to the Soviet Union to participate in the making of a movie which was never filmed and traveled extensively in Central Asia in parts of the USSR which were typically forbidden to Westerners. Hughes's poetry was frequently published in the CPUSA s newspaper and was involved in initiatives supported by communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys and support of the Spanish Republic. While involved in some socialist and communist organizations in the US like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant. His public support of the Soviet Union was demonstrated by his signing a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin s purges.

He was accused of being a communist by many on the right, but he always denied this and when asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote "it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept." He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and following his appearance, he distanced himself from socialism and was rebuked for this by some on the left.

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in New York City.

Kerry Campaign Slogan

Presidential candidate John Kerry selected the title of a 1938 poem by Hughes, "Let America be America again" as the slogan for his 2004 Presidential campaign. Kerry said:

"Langston Hughes was a poet, a black man and a poor man. And he wrote in the 1930s powerful words that apply to all of us today. He said 'Let America be America again. Let it be the dream that it used to be for those whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, for those whose hand at the foundry - something Pittsburgh knows about - for those whose plough in the rain must bring back our mighty dream again. '"

Republican opponents cited Hughes's radical communist and socialist past in attacks on Kerry.

The poem contrasts American idealism with the reality for black people at that time:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)

Quotations from other poems

I stay cool, and dig all jive,
That's the way I stay alive.
My motto, as I live and learn, is
Dig and be dug, in return.

My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black.
If ever I cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If ever I cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I'm sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black........

The musical, BERLIN TO BROADWAY WITH KURT WEILL contains lyrics by Langston Hughes.

From Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia.

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