In 1919, when Langston Hughes was seventeen years old, he spent the summer with his father, Jim Hughes, in Toluca, Mexico. Langston had not seen his father since he was a small child, and he was excited about making the trip. However, during this visit, no affectionate bond would develop between Langston and Jim. Jim Hughes was a cold, difficult man, who was driven by ambition to make money and achieve respect. He had moved to Mexico to avoid segregation and racial injustice in the United States. As the manager of an electric company and owner of a ranch and mines, Jim expressed contempt for black Americans who continued to submit to segregation and live in poverty.
Langston Hughes, 1933 (Library of Congress)
Langston was not ashamed of being a black American. He had already written poems celebrating his heritage. He felt connected to the oppressed "brown" people of the world and hated his father for mistreating his Mexican employees. Witnessing his father's tyranny made Langston sick enough to require hospitalization.
By the end of the summer, Langston was glad to return to school in the United States. On the journey to his mother's house in Cleveland, Ohio, he recognized he was back in his native land when a white man in the train's diner car refused to eat at the same table with him, and a fountain clerk in St. Louis refused to serve him a soft drink. He dealt with these slights the way he would his entire life: He turned away quietly. But Langston decided that instead of running away from the "color line" and hating himself for being black, like his father had, he would write about the real-life experiences of black people. He was determined "to write stories about Negroes, so true that people in faraway lands would read them."
James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to Carolina (Carrie) Mercer Langston and James (Jim) Nathaniel Hughes. Carrie, self-indulgent and easygoing, was an impulsive spendthrift, while Jim, intense and miserly, focused his energies on schemes to raise his status in the world. Extremely intelligent, Jim was willing to work hard and save his money to achieve his goals. He had claimed a 160-acre homestead, which he farmed. In addition, he taught school and worked as a law clerk. His ultimate goal was to take the bar exam and practice law. When he learned blacks were not eligible to take the exam, Jim became angry and blamed the "color line" for blocking his progress. Searching for a better position, he eventually took a job in Mexico.
Carrie refused to follow her husband. Instead, she traveled around the country, living with friends and relatives and working at temporary jobs as a maid or waitress. She had ambitions to become an actress, but roles for black women were scarce. Sometimes she took young Langston with her, but most of the time he stayed with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas.
Grandmother Mary Langston, an American citizen of French, Cherokee, and African descent, was nineteen in 1855 when men tried to kidnap her and sell her as a slave. Her first husband, Lewis Leary, was killed in 1859 at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, during John Brown's raid on the federal arsenal. Throughout Mary Langston's life, she treasured Lewis's bullet-riddled shawl, an emblem of his martyrdom. She often covered young Langston with it as he slept on her daybed.
Mary Langston's first husband, Lewis Leary, had participated in John Brown's raid against the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry. (Library of Congress)
In 1869, Grandmother Mary had married Charles Langston, the son of a white plantation owner and a slave. In 1888, Mary and Charles Langston moved to Lawrence with their children, Carrie and Nathaniel. (Nathaniel was later killed in a mill accident.) They bought a house near Kansas University and opened a grocery store. Everyone in Lawrence respected Charles Langston, but he was not a good business man. When he died in 1892, he left Mary Langston...
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