Langston Hughes, called “the Poet Lau¬ reate of the Negro Race,” was bom in Joplin, Missouri, but raised in different cities around the Midwest and in Mexico City. He graduated high school in 1920, and in 1921 the NAACP’s Crisis launched his career by publishing “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” one of Hughes’ first poems: “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 rivers…”
Hughes became not only one of the first young poets to receive such honor from the NAACP, he was one of the first to signal the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance (see no. 36). One of the nation’s most intense art movements, the Harlem Renaissance saw the rise of great writers like Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston (see no. 61), who later collaborated on both the publication Fire! and the play Mule Bone.
Hughes attended Columbia University for a year, but was swept up by the music and excitement of Harlem and quit. After revel¬ ing in the art and music, he left the country to travel as a sailor, writing constantly. After returning to the US, he published his first collection, The Weary Blues, in 1926.
Hughes’ poems were immediately well received. He went back to school at Lincoln University and published his second collec¬ tion, Fine Clothes to the Jew, in 1927. Graduating in 1929, Hughes finished his novel Not Without Laughter, which was published in 1930.
Traveling constantly and writing con¬ stantly, Hughes began to publish in all gen¬ res. In 1934, after spending a year in Rus¬ sia, his short stories were released in the collection The Ways of White Folks. He covered the Spanish Civil War as a corre¬ spondent, established the Harlem Suitcase Theatre and produced his own play Don’t You Want to Be Free?
Beginning a popular series for The Chicago Defender in 1934, Hughes created the character Jesse B. Semple or “Simple,” who appeared in five collections, beginning with Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), and ending with Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965). A year after he began writing for the Defend¬ er, his play Mulatto opened a year-long run on Broadway.
Though Hughes retains his reputation as one of the most versatile and prolific of America’s writers, he is remembered pri¬ marily as a poet. Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Selected Poems (1963) and Panther and the Lash (1967) remain some of the century’s finest works.
Hughes worked consistently until his death, and his works gave new respect to the African-American working class. Speaking of them in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” he said: “…[J]azz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization.”