Langston Hughes—known early in his career as “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race” and, now, as the preeminent poet of the Harlem Renaissance—was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri to Carrie Langston and Charles Hughes. Recent revelations from historical African American weekly newspapers strongly suggest his birth year as 1901, though he believed that he had been born a year later. Hughes’s birth date was never officially noted because Missouri did not require the registration of births.
In the first installment of his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes noted that he could not truly consider himself Black, due to the “different kinds of blood in [his] family.” His mother, Mary Langston, was born to Charles Langston and Mary Sampson Patterson. Mary was of French and indigenous ancestry on her mother’s side. Hughes recalled that she “looked like an Indian—with very long black hair.” Mary had first married a free Black man named Sheridan Leary in Oberlin, Ohio, where she had attended college. Unbeknownst to Mary, her husband left home to join John Brown during the abolitionist’s raid at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. Leary died on the first night of the rebellion. Not long after her first husband’s death, Mary met Langston, who owned both a farm and a grocery store in Lawrence, Kansas. Like Leary, Langston was deeply invested in politics, so much so that he left his businesses to languish. After he died, he left his family with no money but plenty of his speeches.
On his father’s side, Hughes had two white great-grandfathers. One was Silas Cushenberry—a Jewish slave trader from Kentucky; the other was Sam Clay, a distiller of Scotch ancestry who was rumored to have been a relative of the renowned Kentucky senator Henry Clay.
Hughes’s parents separated shortly after he was born. Charles moved to Mexico to escape white mob violence in Joplin. When Hughes was five or six, his parents reconciled briefly when Charles invited him, Carrie, and Mary to live with him in Mexico City. After a massive earthquake, Carrie returned to Kansas with her mother and son. Hughes did not see his father again until he was seventeen. Some years later, Carrie married Homer Clark, an occasional chef from Topeka, Kansas who also supported the family with odd jobs in steel mills and coal mines. Together, Carrie and Homer had a son.
Hughes was raised by his grandmother, Mary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas until he was 13. Mary was a conductor on the Underground Railroad with her first husband, Lewis Sheridan Leary, one of the men who helped John Brown attack Harpers Ferry. Hughes had difficult relationships with both of his parents and his grandmother. He claimed that he despised his father, whose expressed loathing for other Black people led Hughes to become estranged from him. In the summer of 1915, Carrie invited her son to move to Lincoln, Illinois. Hughes spent the next several years living with her there, in Cleveland, and in Chicago.
Hughes began writing poetry after he returned to Cleveland as a high school sophomore. He contributed verse to the school magazine, Central High Monthly, and later became its editor. He listed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Walt Whitman, and Carl Sandburg among his main poetic influences. After he graduated from high school, he composed one of his best-known poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” He then went to central Mexico for a year to spend time with his father and study Spanish. Meanwhile, Hughes sent three poems to Jessie Redmon Fauset to publish in the Brownies’ Book for children. Fauset published two of his submissions in the January 1921 edition. Five months later, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in the June 1921 issue of the Crisis.
Hughes moved to Harlem in September 1921 and supported himself by working odd jobs. He became a seaman in the summer of 1923, traveling throughout West Africa and Europe. During a stint in Paris, he worked as a busboy at Le Grand Duc, a nightclub in Montmartre. There, he met and befriended numerous Black performers, including future famed nightclub hostess, Ada “Bricktop” Smith.
He returned to the United States and moved to Washington, D.C., working again as a busboy. One day, he waited on Vachel Lindsay at a hotel restaurant and slipped him a copy of “The Weary Blues.” Lindsay accepted the poems and later claimed to have discovered Hughes. In 1926, Hughes enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and published his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926). The year was a prolific one. He wrote the manifesto “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” for the Nation magazine, sponsored the short-lived Fire!! Magazine, and worked on O Blues!, a musical project for producer and future patron of Josephine Baker, Caroline Dudley Reagan. He also published a second poetry collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1926).
In 1929, Hughes earned a Bachelor of Arts and published his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), which won the Harmon gold medal for literature—an award “for distinguished achievement among Negroes.” He resumed his travels in 1932—this time going across the Pacific. He moved to the Soviet Union and traveled from Moscow to Vladivostok on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. He also visited countries in East Asia.
In 1933, Hughes moved to California but showed no sign of settling permanently in the U.S. He returned to Paris in 1937, where he met poet and future Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor. He then traveled with Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, whom he met in 1930, to Spain, where he worked as a newspaper correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.
In 1940, Hughes published The Big Sea, an autobiography that covered his life until 1931. The second, I Wonder as I Wander, was published in 1956. After releasing the book-length poem, Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Hughes shifted toward prose. He began publishing the “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind (1950), Simple Stakes a Claim (1957), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), and Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965).
His career also included the publication of eleven plays, including Mule Bone (1930, 1991), co-written with Zora Neale Hurston; translations of numerous other poets’ work from Spanish and French, including Guillén’s; two anthologies co-edited with Arna Bontemps; and nine additional collections of poetry. Hughes’s final collection, The Panther and the Lash (1967), published posthumously, expressed his thoughts on Black Power and the Black Panther Party.
After his death, the city of New York declared his residence on East 127th Street in Harlem a cultural landmark and renamed the street “Langston Hughes Place.” Hughes bequeathed his personal library to Lincoln University. His ashes are interred under the floor of the lobby in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture beneath a cosmogram memorial that quotes his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea: An Autobiography of Langston Hughes. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1940, 1993.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume I: 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes: Volume II: 1941-1967, I Dream a World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.