Hughes dreamt bravely in the face of racial adversity
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri to Mercer Langston and James Hughes. His parents were both of mixed races, and their son was a combination of African American, European American and Native American descent.
His parents divorced when he was very young, and he was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas. During those years, she instilled in him respect of his ancestry and pride in the African American community into which he was born.
After his grandmother’s death, he returned to live with his mother in Illinois. It was during grammar school that he first began to write and was even elected class poet. His interest in writing continued throughout his high school years; he became a writer for the school paper and worked as an editor for the yearbook. He also discovered his deep love for books.
He worked as a crewman in the early 1920s and traveled to various places around the world. Eventually, he settled down in the United States and worked as a personal assistant at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Hughes eventually quit this position to find one with a more manageable schedule that allowed him time to write.
He became a busboy which turned out to be a very important step in his future career. While working, he met the poet Vachel Lindsay who examined Hughes’ poetry and claimed it was the work of a new black poet.
Hughes attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania from 1925 to 1929. He moved to New York after he graduated and remained there the rest of his life. He died from complications due to prostate cancer at the age of 65.
During his relatively short life, Hughes was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In most of his writing, he kept to the common theme of “Black is Beautiful.”
He attempted to do his part to uplift the African American community, one he greatly admired and whose culture he desired to preserve as a major part of American life. Much of his poetry emphasizes the typical lives of the working class African Americans during his time.
He was once quoted as saying, “My seeking has been to explain and illuminate the African American condition in America and obliquely that of all humankind,” and this is exactly what he attempted to do. As he wrote, he took on the common racial stereotypes and sought to change them. Hughes quickly became famous for his writings and his view of black racial pride that permeated it.
His first book, “Not without Laughter,” won him the Harlem Gold Medal for Literature in 1930. It examines a family dealing with racial and societal struggles. In 1934, he released his first book of short stories, entitled “The Ways of White Folks,” that dealt with the everyday interaction between whites and blacks.
Through his increasing fame, Hughes traveled from various colleges teaching for short periods of time. He taught a semester at Atlanta University, and then spent a few months at the University of Chicago Laboratory School as a lecturer on poetry and writing.
During the last fifteen years of his life, Hughes’ popularity grew immensely amongst the African American as well as global communities. For many, he was looked upon as a hero and as a writer that should be an example for later writers. One such fan wrote this about him: “Langston set a tone, a standard of brother-hood and friendship and cooperation, for all of us to follow. You never got from him, ‘I am the Negro writer,’ but only ‘I am a Negro writer.’ He never stopped thinking about the rest of us.”
From my own standpoint, the first work of Langston Hughes I encountered was in grade school when I read a short poem entitled “A Dream Deferred.” It became one of my favorite pieces of writing. Beginning with “What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…,” it has a strong message that continues to inspire writers.
What happens to dreams we hold back or just put aside? Is it wise that we hold back dreams we have? It seems better that we never hold back our important dreams, or the consequences could be severe regardless of what that dream may be.
It is this idea about Langston Hughes, his dreaming in the face of racial adversity that will and should always be remembered: his racial and literary legacy is a legendary one.