JAMES LANGSTON HUGHES was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. His mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, had been a schoolteacher; his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, was a storekeeper. James left for Mexico while his son was still an infant, and the latter was raised mostly by his grandmother, Mary Langston. Hughes lived for a time in Illinois with his mother, who remarried, and went to high school in Cleveland. He spent the summer of 1919 in Mexico with his father, then taught for a year in Mexican schools. He entered Columbia University in September 1921, a few months after his poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," appeared in the Crisis for June 1921.
After a year of schooling, Hughes took on various jobs in New York, on trans-Atlantic ships, and in Paris. He returned to America in 1925, and while working as a busboy in Washington, D.C., he slipped three poems beside Vachel Lindsay's plate. Lindsay was impressed and began promoting the young poet. In 1925 Hughes won a literary contest in Opportunity, and his writing career was launched. His first collection of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. Another volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew, appeared the next year. A benefactor sent Hughes to Lincoln University, from which he received a B.A. in 1929.
Hughes subsequently supported himself as a poet, novelist, and writer of stories, screenplays, articles, children's books, and songs. His first novel, Not without Laughter, appeared in 1930. His first short-story collection was The Ways of White Folks (1934). He wrote a children's book in collaboration with Ama Bontemps, Popo and Fifina, Children of Haiti (1932), based on a trip Hughes took to Haiti in 1931. He also collaborated with Zora Neale Hurston on a folk comedy, Mule Bone, but it was not published until 1991.
Having received several literary awards and fellowships in the 1930s, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, Hughes was able to write without financial worries. He promoted black theatre in both Harlem and Los Angeles, and himself wrote a number of plays, the most famous of which