Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967): Playwright, Librettist and Civil Rights Advocate
Poet, novelist, playwright, librettist, essayist, and translator, Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902. His parents separated before Langston was born and he spent his preadolescent years with his maternal grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. After his grandmother’s death, Langston settled down in Cleveland, with his mother, his stepfather, and younger brother.
Hughes was fiercely independent from an early age. When his mother and brother followed his stepfather, who occasionally left the family in search of higher wages, Langston decided to stay in Cleveland by himself in order to finish high school. He also had a volatile relationship with his father, a lawyer and general manager of an American company in Mexico. Rather than acquiesce to his domineering father’s demands that he pursue a degree in mining engineering, Langston moved to New York and enrolled in Columbia University. Hughes quit Columbia after a year and decided to acquire a more worldly education. In 1922, he began a four-year stint as a ship crewman, during which he traveled to, and spent considerable time in, western Africa, Paris, and Italy. In 1926, he enrolled in Lincoln University and earned a liberal arts degree in 1930.
Hughes deeply believed that black art should represent the experiences and culture of the black “folk.” Images of rural and urban working-class African Americans filled his poetry and prose and his writing celebrated blues and jazz culture. Some of his more famous writing associated with the Harlem Renaissance include the collections of poems, The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927); the novel Not Without Laughter (1930); and the essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926).
Hughes was also a politically engaged writer. During the 1930s, he wrote plays highlighting the injustice of the Scottsboro case and the imprisonment of the black Communist organizer, Angelo Herndon; he traveled to the Soviet Union to participate in an ultimately aborted film about black workers in the U.S.; and he spent several months in Spain during its civil war, as a correspondent for the black press and a supporter of the anti-fascist forces. Even though Hughes began to distance himself from the left after World War II, he was enveloped by the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War era and testified before Joseph McCarthy in 1953. Eventually, Hughes ceased his peripatetic lifestyle and settled permanently in Harlem. He died there in 1967.
Faith Berry, Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem (Westport, Ct.: L. Hill, 1983); Nathan Huggins, Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-88).
Republished from: Summers, Martin, University of Texas at Austin, BlackPast.org,
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Summers, Martin. (n.d.). Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967): Playwright, librettist and civil rights advocate. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/hughes-langston/