Langston Hughes was a literary giant who found fame during the rise of Black art and culture known widely as the Harlem Renaissance. As a leader of that movement, Hughes’ legacy is set, but his work transcends the period.

The legendary poet’s 118th birthday just passed. Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, but he was primarily raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kan. Hughes’ lineage includes slaveholders as both paternal great-grandfathers were slave owners. His maternal grandmother was of mixed race and one of the first women to attend Oberlin College. Hughes’ mother was born to a mixed race abolitionist father.

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Hughes’ father left his mother and fled to Mexico shortly after he was born, reportedly tired of the racism he faced in the States. While her son lived with his grandmother, Hughes’ mother worked a variety of odd jobs After his grandmother’s death, he rejoined his mother and they settled in Cleveland. Hughes’ high school teacher introduced him to poetry and it inspired him to do more writing and reading.

While living with his father in Mexico after graduating high school in 1920, Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers” was published nationally. Hughes enrolled in Columbia University in New York, but dropped out after he became involved in the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes worked a variety of odd jobs, eventually becoming a ship steward and traveling to Africa and Paris. In 1924, he lived in Paris for a short time.

The following year, Hughes was working as a busboy in Washington, D.C. when he met poet Vachel Lindsay, who was impressed with Hughes’ work and helped to promote him. The exposure helped Hughes win first prize in a literary competition and a scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. After graduating from the HBCU in 1929, Hughes published his first novel, “Not Without Laughter.”

The book did well enough to convince Hughes that he could make a living as a writer. He was featured on international lecture tours throughout the 1930’s and in 1934, his collection of short stories, “The Ways Of White Folks”, was released. During that decade, Hughes also worked as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Hughes released the first of a pair of autobiographies, titled “The Big Sea” while contributing to The Chicago Defender. Hughes used his platform there to speak to the social ills Black people faced, something that defined much of his career.

Seen as an early innovator of the “jazz poetry” form, Hughes work was loose and colorful, inspired by Black vernacular. Hughes wrote more than a dozen poetry collections, over 10 novels, seven non-fiction titles, and a dozen plays.

Hughes did not marry or have children and some historians consider that his work has some implications that he was homosexual. Other scholars believe he was asexual but in any case, Hughes never publicly declared his sexual orientation. Hughes enjoyed a passionate friendship with fellow Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston though the two eventually fell out in a dispute over the authorship of the play “Mule Bone.”

Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer on May 22, 1967. He was 65. His ashes are interred at the Schomburg Institute for Research In Black Culture in Harlem underneath a medallion etched in the floor by the entrance to an auditorium that carries his name.

PHOTO: Library of Congress/Public Domain

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