Friendship Poems

Langston Hughes Biography

LangstonHughesJames Mercer Langston Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of the new literary art form, jazz poetry. However, Hughes is best-known for his work during the Harlem Renaissance.

Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902. He was the second child of school teacher Carrie “Caroline” Mercer Langston and her husband, James Nathaniel Hughes. Both parents were of mixed-race, and Langston Hughes was of African American, European American and Native American descent. It is interesting to note that Hughes was named after both his father and his great-uncle, John Mercer Langston who, in 1888, became the first black to be elected to the United States Congress from Virginia.

Hughes’ father left his family when his son was quite young and later divorced Carrie. After the separation of his parents, while his mother traveled seeking employment, young Langston was raised mainly by his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, in Kansas. It was Mary Langston who instilled in the young Langston Hughes a lasting sense of racial pride. He spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas. After the death of his grandmother, he went to live with family friends, James and Mary Reed, for two years. Because of his unstable early life, his childhood was not an entirely happy one; however, it heavily influenced the poet he would become. Later, Hughes lived with his mother, Carrie, who had remarried, in Lincoln, Illinois when he was still an adolescent, and eventually in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended high school.

He discovered his love of books and writing early on in his education and was even elected class poet. During high school in Cleveland, Ohio, he also wrote for the school newspaper, edited the yearbook and began to write his first short stories, poetry and dramatic plays

Hughes had a very poor relationship with his father. He did live with his father in Mexico for a brief period in 1919. The relationship between the two was very strained and unhappy; it contributed to Langston’s multiple suicide multiple attempts. James Hughes did not support his son’s desire to be a writer. Eventually, Langston did attend Columbia but left after a few years to purse his real dream of being a writer.

Hughes then spent the next few years taking odd jobs and traveling. For awhile he became a part of the black expatriate community in Paris before returning to live with his mother in Washington D.C. By this time, Hughes’ earlier works had already been published in magazines and were about to be collected into his first book of poetry.

Hughes went on to earn a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929. After the completion of his studies he then moved to New York. Except for travels to areas that included parts of the Caribbean, Hughes lived in Harlem for the rest of his life.

Today many biographers believe that Hughes was a homosexual and included homosexual codes in many of his poems, similar in manner to Walt Whitman, whose work Hughes cited as another influence on his poetry. It is believed that, in order to retain the respect and support of black churches and organizations and avoid exacerbating his precarious financial situation, Hughes remained closeted.

On May 22, 1967, Langston Hughes died from complications after having abdominal surgery, related to prostate cancer, at the age of 65. His ashes are now interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer leading to the auditorium named for him within the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The design on the floor covering his cremated remains is taken from the poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Hughes.


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