Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

MAY 13, 2018

by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

With a career that spanned the Harlem Renaissance of the twenties and the Black Arts movement of the sixties, Langston Hughes was the most prolific black poet of his era. Between 1926, when he published his pioneering The Weary Blues, to 1967, the year of his death, when he published The Panther and the Lash, Hughes would write 16 books of poems, two novels, seven collections of short stories, two autobiographies, five works of nonfiction, and nine children’s books; he would edit nine anthologies of poetry, folklore, short fiction, and humor. He also translated Jacques Roumain, Nicolás Guillén, Gabriela Mistral, and Federico García Lorca, and wrote at least thirty plays. It is not surprising, then, that Hughes was known, variously, as “Shakespeare in Harlem” and as the “poet laureate of the Negro.”

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His father, James Nathaniel, was a businessman, and his mother, Carrie Langston Mercer, was a teacher. Hughes attended Columbia University between 1921 and 1922, and received his A.B. from Lincoln in 1929. His dramatically unorthodox career included stints as a laundry boy, an assistant cook, and a busboy; he also served as a seaman on voyages to Europe and Africa. Fluent in French and Spanish, he lived for various periods in Mexico, France, Italy, Spain, and the Soviet Union. Among the “New Negro” writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had no peer as an internationalist, a citizen of the world. And yet his cosmopolitanism, rare for any American in his time, never displaced his passionate engagement with, and commitment to, African-American vernacular culture.

Hughes knew everybody, although almost no one knew him, or was able to penetrate the veils and masks that the truly vulnerable fabricate to present public personae to the world. Hughes’s public faces—despite the fact that he sought and found refuge in his beloved Harlem, he was certainly our most public poet, speaking in one week alone to some ten thousand people—were crafted in such a way that his human substance could not be perceived from among his carefully manufactured shadows. He was apparently a lonely man, and he suffered this isolation in the most private ways, almost never voicing it, despite the fact that he was such a public person. This irony did not escape him; he fondly quoted Dickinson’s famous lines

How public—like a Frog—
To tell your name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

to express his own sense of his predicament. His acquaintances were a veritable “who’s who” of twentieth-century art, from Stella Adler and Toshiko Akiyoshi, Thomas Mann and Dorothy Maynor, to Ezra Pound and Allen Tate, to Mark Van Doren, Kurt Weill, Max Yergan, and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. In so many ways and to so many people, Hughes was “the Negro,” or at least “Negro literature,” its public face, its spoken voice, its cocktail party embodiment as well as its printed texts. What Arnold Rampersad’s definitive biography of Hughes makes clear is how deeply ingrained American Negro literature was in the larger American tradition—even if scholars, until very, very recently, had bracketed it, kept it a ghetto apart, as the Harlem of the American canon.

Hughes’s books were reviewed widely in mainstream journals by mainstream writers, even if few understood his experiments with black vernacular forms, such as blues, jazz, and dialect. His concern for these forms were shared by his remarkably popular newspaper character, Jesse B. Semple (a.k.a. “Simple”), whose musings and exploits were published in the Chicago Defender. Simple’s discussion of the nature of be-bop is an example of how rich Hughes’s columns were; when juxtaposed against Hughes’s comments about the ways that jazz informed his poetry, we begin to understand that we must learn to read Hughes in new ways, both “through” and “against” the African- American vernacular.

Hughes excels in the creation of “images, analogical, melodious, and rhythmical, with assonance and alliteration,” Léopold Sédar Senghor remarks. “You will find this rhythm in French poetry; you will find it in Péguy, you will find it in Claudel, you will find this rhythm in St. John Perse…. And it is this that Langston Hughes has left us with, this model of the perfect work of art.” In these and other respects, Hughes’s best work was his vernacular poetry, cast in “the idiom of the black folk,” and found especially in The Weary Blues, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and Ask Your Mama. Hughes, well before his compeers, Sterling Brown and Zora Neale Hurston, demonstrated how to use black vernacular language and music—especially the blues and jazz—as a poetic diction, a formal language of poetry, and at a moment when other black writers thought the task fruitless at best, detrimental at worst. Indeed, so much of the best of the African-American literary tradition—Brown, Hurston, Ellison, Morrison—grows out of his transmutation of the vernacular into the very stuff of literature. Hughes, in other words, undertook the project of constructing an entire literary tradition upon the actual spoken language of the black working and rural classes—the same vernacular language that the growing and mobile black middle classes considered embarrassing and demeaning, the linguistic legacy of slavery. Ironically, we may fail to recognize the sheer boldness of his innovation, in large part because of the very success of Hughes’s venture, as it has been adopted, accepted, and naturalized by his literary successors. Even aside from Hughes’s range of interests, his command of so many genres, it is in virtue of this signal contribution that Hughes’s place in American letters is secure.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. An Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or co-authored 21 books and created 15 documentary films. He is also a member of the Board of Trustees of the A.R.T.

Excerpted from Langston Hughes: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (Amistad  Literary Series), ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Harper Collins, 2000), ix-xi. [Preface © 1993 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.].

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