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Langston Hughes

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Early Years

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to James Nathaniel Hughes, a lawyer and businessman, and Carrie Mercer (Langston) Hughes, a teacher. The couple separated shortly thereafter. James Hughes was, by his son's account, a cold man who hated blacks (and hated himself for being one), feeling that most of them deserved their ill fortune because of what he considered their ignorance and laziness. Langston's youthful visits to him there, although sometimes for extended periods, were strained and painful. He attended Columbia University in 1921-22, and when he died he, left everything to three elderly women who had cared for him in his last illness, and Langston was not even mentioned in his will.

Hughes mother went through protracted separations and reconciliations in her second marriage (she and her son from this marriage would live with him off and on in later years. He was raised by alternately by her, by his maternal grandmother, and, after his grandmother's death, by family friends. By the time he was fourteen, he had lived in Joplin; Buffalo; Cleveland; Lawrence, Kansas; Mexico City; Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs; Kansas City; and Lincoln, Illinois. In 1915, he was class poet of his grammar-school graduating class in Lincoln. From 1916 to 1920, he attended Central High School in Cleveland, where he was a star athlete, wrote poetry and short stories (and published many of them in the Central High Monthly), and on his own read such modern poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. His classmates were for the most part the children of European immigrants, who treated him largely without discrimination and introduced him to leftist political ideas.

After graduation in 1920, he went to Mexico to teach English for a year. While on the train to Mexico, he wrote the poem "the Negro Speaks of Rivers", which was published in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, a leading black publication. After his academic year at Columbia, he lived for a year in Harlem, embarked on a six-month voyage as a cabin boy on a merchant freighter bound for West Africa. After its return, he took a job on a ship sailing to Holland.

After being robbed on a train in Italy and working his passage back to New York in November of 1924, Hughes moved in with his mother and brother in a small, unheated apartment in Washington, D. C., where he worked in a laundry. For a time, he worked as an assistant to the distinguished black historian Dr. Carter A. Woodson, but he found the tedious research tasks disagreeable, and he was angered and offended by the harsh, avert segregation of life in the nation's capital. He also began to make the acquaintance of writers and intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the extraordinary flourishing of black arts and culture in the 1920's. He won prizes in poetry contests sponsored by the black journals Opportunity and The Crisis, and also had poems accepted by Vanity, a leading mainstream journal of the arts. In May 1925, Opportunity held a dinner for its award winners, where Hughes was sought out by Carl Van Vechten, whom he had met the previous year. He was a photographer who had interested himself in the Harlem Renaissance, asked recommend to his own publisher. Less than three weeks later, The Weary Blues was accepted for publication by the prestigious New York firm of Alfred A. Knopf.

While waiting for the book's publication, Hughes was working as a busboy at Washington's Ward man Park Hotel, where, while serving the poet Vachel Lindsay and his wife at dinner, he left several of his own poems on the table. Lindsay read them that evening to a large audience at his poetry reading, and the story of his "discovery" (he was unaware that Hughes had already published widely in magazines and had a book in press, although he accepted the discovery of these facts quite good-naturedly) was locally and then nationally reported, bringing Hughes a good deal of welcome publicity.

Literary Career

The Weary Blues appeared at the beginning of 1926. Some of its poems were in dialect, on jazz and cabaret themes; others were more traditional and formal in nature, often expressing great loneliness and isolation. The book contained what would become some of his most famous works, including "Mother to Son", "I, Too" and the title poem. The reviews were generally favorable in both the black and the white press, including, to Hughes surprise, white newspapers in the South. Also early in 1926, Hughes enrolled in tiny Lincoln University in southeastern Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In the spring of that year, he met Charlotte van der Veer Quick Mason, a very wealthy widow who had devoted a good part of her considerable fortune to her interest in Native American and African American cultures. She became Hughes's patron, and would become be his main source of financial support for the next four years, until a break that was brought by his resistance to her attempts to control his work schedule and his career. Thereafter, he continued, as always, to support himself through various jobs rather than steady employment. But, now having established himself as a literary figure, he was able to find the kinds of writing, editing and lecturing assignments that would become the pattern for the rest of his life.

Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Hughes second book, was because of his emphasis on telling the truth no matter how unpleasant some might find it, something of a setback for him. Its titleÐ'--which alluded to the necessity of bringing one's wardrobe, in hard times, to a pawnbroker (many of whom where Jewish, especially in black neighborhoods) Ð'- was somewhat offensive to many white readers, while the poems themselves, straightforward treatments of the harsh and gritty lives of ordinary black people, were offensive to many black critics and intellectuals, who wanted only the most positive and refined images of black life to be presented for the inspection of white audiences. While Hughes was not unsympathetic to the feelings of such critics, he rejected their basic assumptions as a willingness to allow the dominant white society to dictate the terms upon which black people; their values and their lifestyles would be judged.

During the highly politicized 1930s, Hughes has journeyed to the Soviet Union with a group of black filmmakers. Growing disillusioned with the filmmakers and their project, he toured Russia and part of Asia on his own. Despite his interest in



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