Langston Hughes



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Langston Hughes
Hughes was one of the most widely read and critically acclaimed African American writers of the twentieth century. During the Harlem Renaissance, he broke with traditional black writers who crafted uplifting stories about the lives of black people by presenting African Americans as they lived, on the fringes of white society. He wrote about common people in ordinary jobs, people who experienced just as much joy and pain as did those in the privileged classes.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, to parents of mixed race. His mother, Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes, was from an activist family respected in both the black and white communities. She was a creative woman who taught, acted, and wrote poetry. His father, James Nathaniel Hughes, had studied law, but had been denied an appearance before the Oklahoma Law Review Board to obtain a license. Racism in the United States led James to settle in Mexico alone after his wife and son returned to live with Carrie’s mother. Because Carrie could not find even menial work in Joplin, she had to travel widely, picking up employment whenever she could. Hughes lived variously with his maternal grandmother, his mother, his father, and family friends Mary and James Reed. His childhood, therefore, consisted of being frequently uprooted and shuttled among relatives and friends, and he developed feelings of abandonment, loneliness, and desolation. His years with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, had a profound influence on him because she passed on her love of literature and sense of social justice. She was a cultured woman who encouraged Hughes’s reading and writing. Hughes immersed himself in books, a near-obsession that did not alleviate his isolation but helped with the loneliness.

Hughes graduated from Cleveland Central High in 1920 and spent the summers of 1919 and 1920 with his father in Mexico City. Hughes did not get along with his father. Their relationship was strained because James sought to dissuade Langston from pursuing a life as a writer; his father urged him to go to an international school and learn a more manly trade. Eventually, father and son finally settled on an arrangement where James would help finance Hughes’s studies at Columbia University in New York City as long as he studied engineering instead of literature. Langston enrolled in the fall of 1921, by which time he already had published “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in The Crisis, the publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Hughes’s path was set as a writer of African American life.


Although he maintained good grades, Hughes found little to like about Columbia. He felt like an outsider among his privileged classmates. Scholarship was not as important to him as exploring the art venues and the jazz clubs of Harlem, recording the everyday events in the lives of regular people and writing about his adventures. He attended lectures in the city and studied what he wanted at his own pace, leaving the university after a year. He obtained a number of odd jobs, including busing tables, working at a fish and oyster house, laundering clothes, cooking, and serving as a steward on an ocean liner headed down the coast of Africa. Before embarking on this voyage, Hughes threw all of his treasured books into the Atlantic Ocean off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, hoping to symbolically leave behind thoughts of his father and mother and reminders of poverty and racism, to begin anew life.
The African voyage reinforced Hughes’s determination to celebrate his heritage. He loved the variety of the continent, with its green hills, dark-skinned people, and tall palm trees—everything seeming wild and lovely.
Near the end of the journey, he spent a few months in Paris, then returned to the United States late in 1924. He began work as a clerk for the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History but quit to be a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel. It was there that his life changed again. Poet Vachel Lindsay was dining in the restaurant one night and Hughes boldly dropped off a few sheets of his poetry beside Lindsay’s plate. By morning, the press knew that Lindsay had “discovered ” an African American busboy poet. It was not long before Hughes was well known in Washington, D.C., and New York and had met many influential people. He became part of the group of talented writers, artists, and musicians who embodied the Harlem Renaissance.
By 1929, Hughes graduated from the predominantly black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. During these years, Hughes often was at odds with mainstream writers who were credited with the Harlem Renaissance. W. E. B. Du Bois felt that Hughes needed to present an uplifting portrait of African American life in order to combat the stereotypes that filled earlier literature. Du Bois accused him of writing about lowbrow subjects. Hughes wanted to celebrate differences, convey racial pride, and show the beauty in being black.

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Hughes never wavered from what he saw as his mission: portraying black life as it was lived. Hughes’s first autobiography was The Big Sea (1940), but he attacked racial segregation in Shakespeare in Harlem (1942) and in Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943). In 1943, he began a weekly column in The Chicago Defender, in which he created a regular character who became immensely popular, Jesse B. Sample (or Simple). Simple used dialogue about racism, race, and issues of the day. The character became the subject of five collections edited by Hughes, ending in 1950 with Simple Speaks His Mind
Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York City. He was a pioneer of modern black literature. He was also one of the first African Americans to be able to earn a living from his writing. He helped young writers gain access to editors of periodicals and at presses. He was a man without guile and appeared to appreciate people as individuals. He wrote over three dozen books: poetry, novels, short stories, plays, children’s stories, histories, opera librettos, and radio and television scripts. He won many major awards for individual works and also was granted a Guggenheim Fellowship and two honorary doctoral degrees.

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