A Brief Timeline of Hughes’ life

AUG 24, 2018

1902 Born in Joplin, Missouri. His parents separate soon after his birth, his father eventually settling in Mexico.

1921 Enrolls at Columbia University with his father’s unwilling support. While at Columbia, Hughes is immersed in the culture of Harlem, meeting W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, and other Black cultural leaders. He publishes poetry, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

1922 Withdraws from Columbia and works on trading ships, traveling to Europe and the west coast of Africa.

1926 Publishes The Weary Blues to positive reviews. Enrolls in Lincoln University and publishes “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

1931 After traveling through Cuba and Haiti, publishes essays and poems criticizing capitalism, marking a major ideological turn to the left. Publishes The Negro Mother and Other Dramatic Recitations, which includes “The Black Clown.”

1932 Travels through the Soviet Union, China, and Japan, and publishes several revolutionary poems including “Goodbye Christ.”

1934 Living in California, publishes short story collection The Ways of White Folks to critical praise.

1935 Hughes’ play Mulatto opens on Broadway. The producer, Martin Jones, is hostile to Hughes’ feelings that the staging is sensationalized.

1937 Travels to Europe to cover the Spanish-American War for the Baltimore Afro-American and other Black newspapers. Meets many writers including W. H. Auden, Bertolt Brecht, Federico García Lorca, and Ernest Hemingway.

1938 Returns to the U.S. and founds the Harlem Suitcase Theater.

1939 Writes the script for the motion picture Way Down South. To his dismay, progressive critics accuse him of selling out to Hollywood.

1940 Publishes his autobiography The Big Sea. Is picketed in Los Angeles by members of an evangelical group criticized in “Goodbye Christ.” Alarmed, Hughes publicly repudiates the poem as an aberration of his youth and then is attacked in the communist press.

1942 Publishes Shakespeare in Harlem, which eschews radicalism and returns to themes and forms of his work from the 1920s, including the blues.

1943 Introduces readers of the Chicago Defender newspaper to the character Jesse B. Semple in a popular weekly column. Publishes Jim Crow’s Last Stand, a volume of verse about segregation and civil rights. Hughes is harassed on the lecture circuit by conservative forces.

1944 Debates segregation on national radio. The FBI surveils Hughes for alleged communist activity, and he is attacked by the Special Committee on Un-American Activities of the House of Representatives.

1947 Opens his opera Street Scene (with music by Kurt Weill) on Broadway. Begins work with composer Jan Meyerowitz on an opera based on his play Mulatto. Right-wing attacks on Hughes continue, though he denies having ever been a member of the Communist Party.

1948 Hughes is denounced as a communist in the U.S. Senate by Albert Hawkes of New Jersey. Hughes writes a new collection of poems about Harlem, called Montage of Dreams Deferred.

1952 Publishes Laughing to Keep from Crying, his first collection of short stories since 1934. Hughes begins to devote increasing time to writing books for children and young people.

1953 Hughes is subpoenaed to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy. He concedes past mistakes as a radical but implicates no one else on the left. He is “exonerated” by the committee, but conservative attacks on him continue.

1954 Hughes publishes Famous American Negroes, a volume for young readers, and makes no mention of W. E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson, at the time both closely identified with communism and under strong attack from conservatives.

1955 Publishes The Sweet Flypaper of Life, inspired by the Harlem photographs of Roy De Carava.

1960 A reading tour is disrupted by bomb threats over Hughes’ alleged communist allegiances. Hughes receives the Spingarn Medal, the highest award of the NAACP. Shakespeare in Harlem, by Robert Glenn based on Hughes’ writings, runs for 32 performances on Broadway.

1961 Writes the musical play Black Nativity and the gospel play The Prodigal Son.

1962 Visits Uganda for a writers’ conference and meets Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and other rising African writers.

1963 In speeches and elsewhere, Hughes defends the moderate civil-rights approach of the NAACP and deplores violence. After the worst riot since 1943 hits Harlem, Hughes defends the community on television and in his column for the New York Post.

1965 In the Post, Hughes attacks obscenity and profanity in new militant black writing and defends Martin Luther King, Jr.

1966 Appointed by President Johnson, Hughes travel to Senegal for the First World Festival of Negro Arts. As the leader of the American delegation, Hughes speaks on “Black Writers in a Troubled World.” After a month in Senegal, Hughes tours other parts of Africa for the State Department.

1967 On May 22, Hughes dies following complications from surgery. His body is cremated, and his ashes are placed in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, under a mosaic cosmogram inspired by  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

Source: “A Chronology of the Life of Langston Hughes.” In The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad, 8-20. New York: Vintage, 1995.


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