African-American Writer, Poet, Kansan | February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967
Langston Hughes in his twenties, circa 1930.
(James) Langston Hughes began writing in high school, and even at this early age was developing the voice that made him famous. Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, but lived with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas until he was thirteen and then with his mother in Lincoln, Illinois and Cleveland, Ohio where he went to high school. Hughes's grandmother, Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston, was prominent in the African American community in Lawrence. Her first husband had died at Harper's Ferry fighting with John Brown; her second husband, Lanston Hughes's grandfather, was a prominent Kansas politician during Reconstruction. During the time Hughes lived with his grandmother, however, she was old and poor and unable to give Hughes the attention he needed. Besides, Hughes felt hurt by both his mother and his father, and was unable to understand why he was not allowed to live with either of them. These feelings of rejection caused him to grow up very insecure and unsure of himself.
When Langston Hughes's grandmother died, his mother summoned him to her home in Lincoln, Illinois. Here, according to Hughes, he wrote his first verse and was named class poet of his eighth grade class. Hughes lived in Lincoln for only a year, however; when his step-father found work in Cleveland, Ohio, the rest of the family then followed him there. Soon his step-father and mother moved on, this time to Chicago, but Hughes stayed in Cleveland in order to finish high school. His writing talent was recognized by his high school teachers and classmates, and Hughes had his first pieces of verse published in the Central High Monthly, a sophisticated school magazine. Soon he was on the staff of the Monthly, and publishing in the magazine regularly. An English teacher introduced him to poets such as Carl Sandburg and Walk Whitman, and these became Hughes' earliest influences. During the summer after Hughes's junior year in high school, his father reentered his life. James Hughes was living in Toluca, Mexico, and wanted his son to join him there. Hughes lived in Mexico for the summer but he did not get along with his father. This conflict, though painful, apparently contributed to Hughes's maturity. When Hughes returned to Cleveland to finish high school, his writing had also matured. Consequently, during his senior year of high school, Langston Hughes began writing poetry of distinction.
After graduating from high school, Hughes planned to return to Mexico to visit with his father, in order to try to convince him that he should pay for his son's college education at Columbia University in New York City. At Columbia, Hughes thought, he could get a college education but also begin his career as a writer. On his way to Mexico on the train, while thinking about his past and his future, Hughes wrote the famous poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." After arriving in Mexico, the tension between Hughes and his father was strong. Hughes wanted to be a writer; his father wanted him to be an engineer. After Hughes sent some of his poetry to the Brownies Book and Crisis magazines and it was accepted, his father was impressed enough to agree to pay for a year at Columbia University.
Hughes entered Columbia University in the fall of 1921, a little more than a year after he had graduated from Central High School. Langston stayed in school there for only a year; meanwhile, he found Harlem. Hughes quickly became an integral part of the arts scene in Harlem, so much so that in many ways he defined the spirit of the age, from a literary point of view. The Big Sea, the first volume of his autobiography, provides such a crucial first-person account of the era and its key players that much of what we know about the Harlem Renaissance we know from Langston Hughes's point of view. Hughes began regularly publishing his...