Today is the first day of Black History Month and also the birthday of Langston Hughes, the African American poet and social activist. Google has given him a doodle today, which is really nice.
Also on February 1, 1960, four black students began a sit-in at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. But that’s another story.
Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes moved around a great deal with his grandmother. He followed his father’s wandering footsteps to Mexico and visited West Africa and Europe, before returning to work at a Washington, DC hotel. He wrote his very first successful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” at age nineteen, published in Crisis Magazine. This was included in his first poetry collection, “The Weary Blues,” published when he was only 24. His second collection,“Fine Clothes to the Jew,” appeared the following year. And in Washington he found a patron – a very interesting and unusual poet called Vachel Lindsay, who helped him along the way.
Well – why was Lindsay unusual? He was a performance poet – almost like the Jamaican dub poets of today. He believed in the spoken word and was especially interested in the cadences of African American speech. With some Native American heritage, he was a great nature-lover and traveler. His home in Springfield, Illinois is a historic site.
Hughes graduated from Lincoln University and returned to Harlem, New York, which became his true home. He was influenced by left-wing politics and visited the Soviet Union and the Caribbean at several points. And, of course, he became a part of the Harlem Renaissance along with other great writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen and the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay (incidentally, Hughes and McKay died on the same day, May 22, nineteen years apart). By the way, there is a short 2011 documentary “Harlem Voices” that compares Hughes’ and McKay’s work. It was a time of burning creativity. In 1926, the same year his first poetry collection was published, Hughes also wrote an essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which was published in The Nation. It caused quite a stir.
“This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America – this urge within the race toward whiteness, standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible,” wrote Hughes. He was a steadfast proponent of black consciousness – the beauty and dignity of black people – but in an unpretentious way. From his first poems as a high school student, he helped build that foundation up until his death in 1967 (by that time, he considered some of the Black Power advocates rather too extreme).
I have learned that Langston Hughes, so famous for his poetry, actually produced a huge amount of writing over four decades – he did start young: essays, novels, short stories, non-fiction and plays. He also wrote a column for the Chicago Defender. He edited anthologies of African American writers, and was widely published. He even served as a war correspondent for several American newspapers during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. And he had connections, so was able to support and promote the work of many young Harlem writers. He was influential in so many ways throughout his life – the initiator of “jazz poetry,” and among the first to use African American speech patterns in his work.
What was Langston Hughes like as a person? I would love to have met him. In many photographs, he is laughing – despite the wistful, almost lonely mood of many of his poems, he had a good sense of humor, I believe. His comments on the condition of the black man in America and racial stereotypes are often dryly sarcastic. He was very much influenced by his grandmother, who basically raised him and gave him a strong sense of self-esteem and pride in being black. Although his childhood, with an absent father and much moving from place to place, must have been somewhat unstable, he seems to have used his experience to write and virtually hit the ground running with his poetry. I think he was a witty, urbane man, but what we would now call down to earth. He was not “angry,” but he had a powerful philosophy. For example, here is a part of his poem, “My People”:
The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.
Mr. Hughes had some likes and dislikes, by the way. “I like Tristan, goat’s milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights,” he said (agreed, except for the bullfights). On the other hand, “I dislike Aida, parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges” (personally, I love bridges, and the cold). I would love to have asked him why he liked bullfights. Because I think he was a kind man.
If you have not read any of Mr. Hughes’ work, there is much to indulge in. His poetry is accessible. It moves and sways; it touches the emotions.
Happy birthday, Mr. Hughes!