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Langston Hughes Biography

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Langston Hughes is regarded as one of the most significant American authors of the twentieth century. Foremost a poet, he was the first African-American to earn a living solely from his writings after he became established. Over a forty-year career beginning in the 1920s until his death in 1967, Hughes produced poetry, plays, novels, and a variety of nonfiction. He is perhaps best known for his creation of the fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, which first appeared in a Chicago Defender newspaper column in 1943. Hughes' writings focused mainly on the lives of plain black people and show their beauty, wisdom, and strength to overcome social and economic injustice.

Although Hughes traveled extensively and later called New York City home, this biographical sketch focuses on his stay in Washington, D.C. from November 1924 to January 1926. Black Washington's middle class community experienced a literary rebirth during the 1920s. Eventually, some writers took their skills to Harlem, a section of New York City widely considered to be the "Mecca" of black culture in the 1920s.

Hughes was born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, but grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. His parents separated shortly after his birth, because his father disliked racism and moved to Mexico. Hughes' grandmother raised him. As a teenager, he joined his mother in Cleveland after she had remarried. From 1916 through 1923, Hughes visited his father in Mexico often.

During this period, he published his first prose, "Mexico Games" in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) periodical for children, the Brownie's Book. When crossing the Mississippi River in route to Mexico in 1922, he also wrote his famous poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers."

In late 1924, following travel abroad, Hughes returned to the United States with little money. He joined his mother and younger brother at the home of relatives in the premier black residential area of Washington, LeDroit Park. They stayed in the 1900 block of 3rd Street, NW and later moved to an apartment, located at 1749 S Street. There was another reason for Hughes' presence in Washington. Though he would earn a degree from Lincoln University (PA) in 1929, he really wanted to attend Howard University. Saving enough money for tuition became his goal.

Shortly after his arrival in the City, Hughes sought a position as a page at the Library of Congress, but Washington's black leaders were unsuccessful in landing him this choice position. Hughes accepted an advertising job at the black weekly, the Washington Sentinel, but quit the paper shortly after because of poor pay. He then took a job at a laundromat. During his leisure hours, he spent time on 7th Street, NW where ordinary black people lived. Along the storefronts, he observed them eating barbecue and fish sandwiches. Seventh Street residents were poor but cherished life. They shot pool and told many tall tales. Here, Hughes saw something else of interest. People sang and played the blues. Although the songs were happy or sometimes sad, they often contained the theme of the underdog moving on despite social unrest.

Hughes also visited sanctified Churches on 7th Street and enjoyed the spirituals. He liked the blues and spirituals so much that he integrated them into his poetry. Hughes frequented other locations in the City too. On Saturday nights, he stopped by author Georgia Johnson's home at 1461 S Street to discuss literature, eat cake, and drink wine. Hughes also observed Jewish merchants on upper 7th Street plying their wares.

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