by Kayla Aldrich, Read to Them staff
Hello, all! Over the course of Finding Langston, Langston feels a connection to his namesake, poet, Langston Hughes. For a figure who is so vital to the book, we wanted to further enhance your understanding of Hughes by taking the time to share his personal history!
James Mercer Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri, but spent the majority of his youth moving around the country. For a while, he lived with his grandmother, but upon her passing, stayed with his mother and eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was during these early years that Hughes first discovered a love of poetry.
During his time in high school and college, Hughes began to publish his work in earnest. Though he dropped out of Columbia University after a year, he continued to develop his craft and received high praise for his work. After leaving Columbia University, Hughes traveled to Africa and Europe, working a number of jobs including an assistant cook, busboy, and launderer, as well as a seaman before returning to the United States to settle in Washington DC.
The Harlem Renaissance was in full swing. Harlem, a neighborhood in New York City. This golden age in African American culture launched Hughes to the forefront of this movement. He used jazz rhythms and dialect in his poems to reflect the lives of African Americans in urban environments. His first book of poetry, Weary Blues, was published in 1926; it was immediately popular, and helped to establish Hughes’ style of prose as well as his dedication to Black themes and heritage.
It was with the publication of his first novel, Not Without Laughter, that convinced Hughes he could make a living as a writer. And he was right— Hughes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, and a Rosenwald Fellowship in 1941. He would receive a Spingarn Medal, a Quill Award for Poetry, and the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Fiction, among others. He would also be awarded honorary doctorates from Lincoln University, Howard University, and Western Reserve University.
Over the course of Hughes' career, he authored an astounding 16 volumes of poetry, three short story collections, eleven plays, two novels, nine children’s books, and two autobiographies.
In 1967, Hughes lost his battle with prostate cancer and passed away at his residence in New York. His home at 20 East 127th Street was given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commision. The block, itself, was renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”
Finding Langston cites a number of poems by Hughes, including: “Homesick Blues”, “One-Way Ticket,” “Evenin’ Air Blues,” “Daybreak in Alabama,” “Ardella,” and “Red Clay Blues” all of which can be found in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. So on this fine Wednesday, use The Poetry Foundation to sample some of Hughes’ other pieces! You’ve got plenty to choose from!
We’ll be back on Friday with our wrap-up of Finding Langston, and until then, all: be kind, be well, and happy reading!