The novels and poems of Langston Hughes burst like literary fireworks onto the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. By the time he died of prostate cancer, at the age of 65, he had published eleven plays, numerous works of prose, and a large body of poetry.
Writing was in the soul of the young man who bounced from home to home after his parents divorced. He was still in his teens when he began to write poetry. By the time he reached 8th grade, he was acknowledged by his peers as the “class poet.”
Years later Hughes was in a train rolling north, after a year in Mexico with his father, when he penned “The Negro Speaks of Rivers“ on an envelope. The poem, inspired by the work of Carl Sandburg, was published in The Crisis in June 1921, when the writer was just 19 years old.
Knopf published the young writer’s first poetry collection, The Weary Blues, in 1926. Three years later he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. A year later, in 1930, he won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature for his first novel, Not Without Laughter. The Academy of American Poets says of his work:
Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. 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.
Hughes was interested in communism and traveled to Haiti and the Soviet Union to learn about a political system he saw as being more accepting of minorities. That was enough to earn him a subpoena to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. He put the committee on the defensive with his powerful indictment of racism, an injustice only one American political party, the Communists, had spoken against. He had written out his statement, which said, in part:
I never read the theoretical books of socialism or communism or the Democratic or Republican party for that matter, and so my interest in whatever may be considered political has been non-theoretical, non-sectarian, and largely really emotional and born out of my own need to find some kind of way of thinking about this whole problem of myself, segregated, poor, colored, and how I can adjust to this whole problem of helping to build America when sometimes I can not even get into a school or a lecture or a concert or in the south go to the library and get a book out. So that has been a very large portion of the emotional background of my work, which I think is essential to one’s understanding.
As a younger generation of black writers became more militant, Hughes’s popularity declined. The Poetry Foundation writes:
It was Hughes’s belief in humanity and his hope for a world in which people could sanely and with understanding live together that led to his decline in popularity in the racially turbulent latter years of his life. Unlike younger and more militant writers, Hughes never lost his conviction that “most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.”
This year’s 16th LGBT History Month icon never married. He never had children. He never said he was gay. After his death, no lovers stepped forward to claim a relationship. Whatever the truth of his sexuality, he took it with him to his grave.
In his 1988 biography, The Life of Langston Hughes, Arnold Rampersad explores the writer’s attraction to black men, but it was a film that led to increased speculation. In 1989 British filmmaker Isaac Julien released Looking for Langston, a lyrical exploration of the poet’s life within the context of the black gay culture of Harlem in the 1920s.
After his death, the New York City Preservation Committee gave his Harlem residence landmark status. The street on which the home sits has been renamed. It is now called “Langston Hughes Place.”
The Weary Blues, 1926
Shakespeare in Harlem, 1942
Freedom’s Plow, 1943
One-Way Ticket, 1949
Not Without Laughter, 1930
The Ways of White Folks, 1934
The Big Sea, 1940
Simple Takes a Wife, 1953
Mule Bone (with Zora Neale Hurston), 1930
Soul Gone Home, 1937
Don’t You Want to Be Free, 1938
Simply Heaven, 1957
Web Sites about Langston Hughes
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Photo from LGBT History Month