Magazine article The New Crisis

Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: The Life & Times of Langston Hughes

Magazine article The New Crisis

Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: The Life & Times of Langston Hughes

Article excerpt

100 years after his birth, remembering the prolific literary legend whose words captured the texture of Black life

Langston Hughes loved nothing better, craved nothing more, than the love and approval of the masses of Black people in America and around the world. From his decision around 1920, at the age of 18, to try to live by his writings, he devoted himself to a career that would take as its center the world of African Americans and, at its most primary, be rooted in valuing the humanity of all peoples. He moved easily between this profound sense of racial pride and love - unrivaled in its intensity by that of any other major writer - and a cosmopolitanism that made him at home all around the world.

Today, Hughes' reputation shows healthy signs of growth. When the Academy of American Poets recently held an informal online vote for the poets who deserve to have their image on a postage stamp, more than 10,000 people participated. Hughes outpaced the 205 poets nominated for this honor, garnering nearly five times as many votes as his nearest competitor. And of the more than 400 poets featured on the Academy's Web site, Hughes' page is visited most frequently, according to the organization. The University of Missouri Press is publishing his collected works in 17 volumes; W.E.B. Du Bois is the only other African American writer to be so honored by any press. And this year, academic conferences celebrating the centennial of his birth will be held in Joplin, Mo. (his place of birth), Lawrence, Kan. (where he grew up), and New Haven, Conn. (where nearly all of his papers are on file at Yale University). Hughes' likeness will also grace that U.S. postage stamp.

What made Hughes dedicate his life to writing and to his fellow Black Americans? First, there was a sense on his part of a profound personal obligation. His maternal grandmother's first husband had died at Harper's Ferry fighting in John Brown's revolutionary band. Her second husband, Hughes' grandfather, had been a fighting abolitionist and Mary Langston, herself an abolitionist, had worked hard to instill in her grandson a sense of duty to the cause of social justice. She may have also pushed him toward writing. In the absence of his parents - Hughes' father emigrated to Mexico, and his mother frequently lived elsewhere-- he endured a quiet childhood with the aging and terse Mary Langston in Lawrence, Kan. "I was unhappy for a long time," he recalled, "and very lonesome, living with my grandmother." For consolation he turned to books, and the wonderful world in books - where "if people suffered, they did so in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas."

In Cleveland, Ohio, where he moved to live with his mother and her second husband, he attended Central High School from 1916 to 1920. Its alumni included John D. Rockefeller and Laura Spelman Rockefeller, but in Hughes' day Central High served mainly the children of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. They helped to open Hughes' eyes to the world beyond Cleveland, to the possibilities of interracial harmony and to radical socialism. Here he began publishing poems and stories in the school monthly magazine. He was elected Class poet and editor of the yearbook. His decision to become a writer, he declared, came from reading the work of the author Guy de Maupassant in the original French: "I think it was de Maupassant who made me really want to be a writer and write stories about Negroes, so true that people in far-away lands would read them even after I was dead."

Hughes graduated from high school in 1920 and New York City beckoned. With The Crisis magazine at the peak of its influence under the editorship of W.E.B. Du Bois, and Marcus Garvey and his Back-to-Africa campaign in full cry, the young writer began to dream, and scheme, of finding his way to Harlem. First, however, he joined his father for a year in Mexico. The main outcome of this ill-fated reunion was his father's agreement to fund Langston's enrollment at Columbia University in New York. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.