Langston Hughes was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that took place in the 1920s in a number of American cities, particularly Harlem. A major poet, Hughes also wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. He sought to honestly portray the joys and hardships of working-class black lives, avoiding both sentimental idealization and negative stereotypes.
Langston Hughes biography
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents, James Hughes and Carrie Langston, separated soon after his birth, and his father moved to Mexico. Hughes was raised primarily by his maternal grandmother, Mary, until she died in his early teens. From that point, he went to live with his mother, and they moved to several cities before eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio.
He attended high school in Cleveland, where he wrote his first poetry, short stories, and dramatic plays. According to the first volume of his 1940 autobiography, The Big Sea, which chronicled his life until the age of 28, Hughes said he often used reading to combat loneliness while growing up. “I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books—where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas,” he wrote.
Upon graduating in 1920, he traveled to Mexico to live with his father for a year. It was during this period that, still a teenager, he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” a free-verse poem that ran in the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine and garnered him acclaim. It read, in part:
The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes
“I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
After a short time in New York, he spent the early 1920s traveling through West Africa and Europe, living in Paris and England.
In 1921 Hughes enrolled at Columbia University where he studied briefly, and during which time he quickly became a part of Harlem’s burgeoning cultural movement, what is commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance. But Hughes dropped out of Columbia in 1922 and worked various odd jobs around New York for the following year, before signing on as a steward on a freighter that took him to Africa and Spain. He left the ship in 1924 and lived for a brief time in Paris, where he continued to develop and publish his poetry.
Hughes returned to the United States in 1924 and to Harlem after graduating from Lincoln University in 1929. His first poem was published in 1921 in The Crisis and he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926. Hughes’s influential work focused on a racial consciousness devoid of hate.
In 1926, he published what would be considered a manifesto of the Harlem Renaissance in The Nation: “The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too. The tom-tom cries, and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.”
Although Hughes had trouble with both black and white critics, he was known as the People’s Poet, and was the first black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures.
In the late 1940s, Hughes contributed the lyrics for a Broadway musical titled Street Scene, which featured music by Kurt Weill. The success of the musical would earn Hughes enough money that he was finally able to buy a house in Harlem. Around this time, he also taught creative writing at Atlanta University (today Clark Atlanta University) and was a guest lecturer at a university in Chicago for several months.
Over the next two decades, Hughes would continue his prolific output. In 1949 he wrote a play that inspired the opera Troubled Island and published yet another anthology of work, The Poetry of the Negro.
Part of the reason he was able to do this was the phenomenal acceptance and love he received from average black people. A reviewer for Black World noted in 1970: “Those whose prerogative it is to determine the rank of writers have never rated him highly, but if the weight of public response is any gauge then Langston Hughes stands at the apex of literary relevance among Black people. The poet occupies such a position in the memory of his people precisely because he recognized that ‘we possess within ourselves a great reservoir of physical and spiritual strength,’ and because he used his artistry to reflect this back to the people.”
Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.Langston Hughes
On May 22, 1967, Hughes died from complications of prostate cancer. A tribute to his poetry, his funeral contained little in the way of spoken eulogy but was filled with jazz and blues music. Hughes’ Harlem home, on East 127th Street, received New York City Landmark status in 1981 and was added to the National Register of Places in 1982. Volumes of his work continue to be published and translated throughout the world.
What Literary Devices did Langston Hughes use?
Hughes uses the technique of anaphora, or repetition, as a rhetorical device that unifies the disparate elements of the poem: I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. In “I, Too,” Hughes uses literary devices such as metaphor and parallelism.
In ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers. ‘ These include but are not limited to enjambment, imagery, and repetition. A reader will immediately notice that Hughes uses a great deal of the latter. This is especially evident at the beginning and end of ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
Simile. The speaker of “Harlem” introduces several similes over the course of the poem. Notably, each simile appears as a supplement to one of the possible outcomes the speaker describes in response to their opening question: “What happens to a dream deferred?” (line 1).
Langston Hughes Writing Style
Hughes’ poetry is closely connected to jazz music. In fact, he founded the style of poetry called “jazz poetry,” in which the rhythm of the poem when spoken aloud mirrors the sounds of jazz music.
Hughes uses poetry to convey the messages of equality, racial justice, and democracy. He celebrates the history, folkways, and real lives of his people. His poems are highly subjective, impassioned, and refreshingly powerful. They portray the dignity, resilience, struggle, and soulfulness of Black Americans.
I, Too by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.