Jazz Poet of the Harlem Renaissance 1902-1967
During the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, African American writers and artists rediscovered and celebrated the rich traditions of black culture. Paramount among these rediscoveries was the history of African American music, from the slave spirituals and work songs of the early nineteenth century to the gospel, blues, and jazz of the early twentieth century. These musical forms influenced almost all of the art produced in Harlem during the era. But few writers were as indebted to music as Langston Hughes. Though he was also a novelist, an essayist, a journalist, and a playwright, it was Hughes’s music-inspired poetry that made him one of the most distinctive American poets.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, Hughes spent his childhood traveling the Midwest with his mother and stepfather as they looked for work. Accustomed to life on the road, he refused to settle down even after he graduated from Central High School in Cleveland in 1920. Instead he moved to Mexico City to live with his father. He experienced less racial prejudice in the capital of Mexico and found time to work on poems such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which was published in The Crisis – a leading journal of the Harlem Renaissance – in 1921. After a year in Mexico, however, he left his father on the condition that he would study engineering at Columbia University in New York. But Hughes stayed at Columbia only for one year before he withdrew and boarded a steamer bound for Africa.
Hughes’s journeys led him to Paris, where he worked as the restaurant busboy, and then to Washington D.C., where he published during his travels earned him a growing reputation in Harlem. In 1925, after winning a poetry contest in The Crisis and impressing several important white writers, Hughes signed a contract with a major publishing company and submitted his first book, The Weary Blues (1926). The next year, as he was completing his college degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he published his second volume, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). This two collections announced the arrival of a major new voice in American poetry.
Hughes’s poems described the harsh realities of African American life in the rhythms of jazz and the blues. They featured the rhyme schemes of popular music and the kinds of language Hughes heard on the streets of New York and in the fields of the rural South and Midwest. To the disappointment of some, they were often critical of black as well as white Americans. But criticism was not Hughes’s primary concern. His poems celebrated the richness of African American culture, in a style entirely derived from that culture.
In 1930, after the publication of his first novel, Not Without Laughter, Hughes left Harlem to tour the South as a lecturer and reader. Two years later he accompanied several other black intellectuals on a tour of the Soviet Union. Despite the shortcomings of that nation’s communist system, Hughes found some reasons to praise the USSR, especially for avoiding the kind of racial segregation that was still a feature of life in the United States. Such praise was dangerous to his career, however. In 1953, when the U.S. government was investigating Americans with ties to the Soviet Union, Hughes was forced to deny his more radical political beliefs in order to continue writing.
When he returned from the USSR, he published a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934) and founded a theatrical group, the Harlem Suitcase Players, to stage his plays. Then he lent his talents to the American war effort during World War II. He wrote advertisement bonds and columns supporting the war effort in The Chicago Defender. In the Defender articles, he adopted the voice of a fictional character, Jesse B. Semple (or “Simple”), who would later become the subject of some of his most popular books, including 1950’s Simple Speaks His Mind. He also continued to work with theater groups and publish his distinctive poetry, including his ground-breaking 1951 poem cycle, Montage of a Dream Deferred.
Through the 1960s, Hughes wrote in a variety of genres, edited collections of African American literature. Occasionally criticized by Civil Rights activists for his political style as well as his rejection of communist beliefs during his 1953 testimony before Congress, he nevertheless remained an influential figure in African American culture until his death in 1967.
Hughes participated in many aspects of American culture in the mid-twentieth century. As a journalist, a playwright, a novelist, an editor, and a memoirist, he made important and lasting contributions of the literature of his era. But his legacy to future generations begins with his poetry, and its unique adaptation of popular music to the representation of African American experiences.
More detailed information can be found in the "Extraordinary American Writers" John Tessitore, and issued by The Scholastic Inc. in the USA.Information should be used just for educational purposes.