James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the then-new literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.
Growing up in a series of Midwestern towns, Hughes became a prolific writer at an early age. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he made his career. He graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio and soon began studies at Columbia University in New York City. Although he dropped out, he gained notice from New York publishers, first in The Crisis magazine, and then from book publishers and became known in the creative community in Harlem.
He eventually graduated from Lincoln University. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote plays, and short stories. He also published several non-fiction works. From 1942 to 1962, as the civil rights movement was gaining traction, he wrote an in-depth weekly column in a leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.
Like many African-Americans, Hughes had a complex ancestry.
Both of Hughes’ paternal great-grandmothers were enslaved Africans, and both of his paternal great-grandfathers were white slave owners in Kentucky. According to Hughes, one of these men was Sam Clay, a Scottish-American whiskey distiller of Henry County, said to be a relative of statesman Henry Clay. The other was Silas Cushenberry, a Jewish-American slave trader of Clark County.
Hughes’s maternal grandmother Mary Patterson was of African-American, French, English and Native American descent. One of the first women to attend Oberlin College, she married Lewis Sheridan Leary, also of mixed race, before her studies. Lewis Leary subsequently joined John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in West Virginia in 1859, where he was fatally wounded.
Hughes grew up in a series of Midwestern small towns. His father left the family soon after the boy was born and later divorced Carrie. The senior Hughes traveled to Cuba and then Mexico, seeking to escape the enduring racism in the United States.
After the separation, Hughes’s mother traveled, seeking employment. Langston was raised mainly in Lawrence, Kansas, by his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston. Through the black American oral tradition and drawing from the activist experiences of her generation, Mary Langston instilled in her grandson a lasting sense of racial pride. Imbued by his grandmother with a duty to help his race, Hughes identified with neglected and downtrodden black people all his life, and glorified them in his work.
He lived most of his childhood in Lawrence. In his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, he wrote: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”
After the death of his grandmother, Hughes went to live with family friends, James and Auntie Mary Reed, for two years. Later, Hughes lived again with his mother Carrie in Lincoln, Illinois. She had remarried when he was an adolescent. The family moved to the Fairfax neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended Central High School and was taught by Helen Maria Chesnutt, whom he found inspiring.
His writing experiments began when he was young. While in grammar school in Lincoln, Hughes was elected class poet. He stated that in retrospect he thought it was because of the stereotype about African Americans having rhythm.
Honors and awards
1926: Hughes won the Witter Bynner Undergraduate Poetry Prize.
1935: Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which allowed him to travel to Spain and Russia.
1941: Hughes was awarded a fellowship from the Rosenwald Fund.
1943: Lincoln University awarded Hughes an honorary Litt.D.
1954: Hughes won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
1960: the NAACP awarded Hughes the Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American.
1961: National Institute of Arts and Letters.
1963: Howard University awarded Hughes an honorary doctorate.
1964: Western Reserve University awarded Hughes an honorary Litt.D.
1973: the first Langston Hughes Medal was awarded by the City College of New York.
1979: Langston Hughes Middle School was created in Reston, Virginia.
1981: New York City Landmark status was given to the Harlem home of Langston Hughes at 20 East 127th Street (40°48′26.32″N 73°56′25.54″W) by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission and 127th Street was renamed “Langston Hughes Place”. The Langston Hughes House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
2002: The United States Postal Service added the image of Langston Hughes to its Black Heritage series of postage stamps.
2002: scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Langston Hughes on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
2009: Langston Hughes High School was created in Fairburn, Georgia.
2012: inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
On May 22, 1967, Hughes died in the Stuyvesant Polyclinic in New York City at the age of 66 from complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
It is the entrance to an auditorium named for him. The design on the floor is an African cosmogram entitled Rivers. The title is taken from his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Within the center of the cosmogram is the line: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”.