Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Black History Month Profiles: Langston Hughes

The Writer's Almanac:

Today is the birthday of the man known as “The O. Henry of Harlem,” American poet Langston Hughes (1902). In 1926, he was working as a busboy at a hotel in New York City when the poet Vachel Lindsay arrived for dinner. Hughes placed some poems under Lindsay’s dinner plate. Intrigued, Lindsay read them and asked who wrote them. Hughes stepped forward and said, “I did.” And that’s how he came to publish his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926), at the age of 24.

He was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a storekeeper. His father left the family and moved to Mexico, leaving Hughes mostly in the care of his grandmother, Mary. She was one of the first women to attend Oberlin College, and read to Hughes all the time. By the time he was 12 years old, he’d lived in six different cities. He said: “I was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother. Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books — where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”

He went to college for a little while, but quit because of racism. He mostly traveled, working as a doorman at a nightclub in Paris, a seaman on ships, a waiter, and a truck farmer. He went to the Canary Islands, Holland, France, and Italy, writing poems and essays about the African-American experience.

Langston Hughes became a prominent member of the Harlem Renaissance, a group of African-American artists and writers in Harlem, New York, that included Zora Neale Hurston and Countee Cullen. Langston Hughes’s books include Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Not Without Laughter (1929), and The Ways of White Folks (1934). He was a prolific letter writer, sometimes composing as many as 30 or 40 a night. He had so many in his sock drawer, he had to find another drawer for his socks. At the end of his life, he had enough letters to fill 20 volumes of books.

Langston Hughes’s ashes are interred beneath the entrance to the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The inscription above his ashes is from his poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers. It says, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

When asked what he wrote about, Langston Hughes answered, “Workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago — people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter — and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.”

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