James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902 to James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Langston Hughes. A strong liking for literature ran through his maternal family and it is perhaps from here that James Langston Hughes picked up on it and inherited this liking. His mother wrote poems and used to deliver monologues in costumes at a lot of events. His maternal grandfather Charles Howard Langston and his brother were men of words and influenced James from an early age.
The poet’s father James Hughes was a law student and finished his education in the distance mode much like you all. He even wanted to sit for the Oklahoma Territory bar examination but was denied permission to do so by an all-white member examination board. Denied proper employment in Oklahoma, James moved with his wife to Joplin in the hopes of finding some employment. Life was not easy on the Hughes family. They had to deal with the loss of losing their first child in 1900 and Langston Hughes was born two years later. The financial burden was like a tight noose around the Hughes family and poverty was looming large. To be able to provide for his family and support an 18-month-old baby Langston, James Hughes left the United States of America and moved to Mexico in the hopes of finding better employment. Langston and his mother stayed back in the States and received money from their father from Mexico. Carrie Hughes, Langston’s mother too worked in many irregular jobs, moving from one city to another in the hopes of finding any employment she could lay her hands on. Young Langston usually did not accompany his mother and was left with his maternal grandmother Mary Leary Langston. From the age of nine, he started living together with her in Lawrence, while his mother and father were away for work. He did occasionally meet his mother at Topeka or Colorado and even accompanied her to Mexico to visit his father in 1908.
Langston in his younger years lived a hard life with his grandmother, who unlike most women in Lawrence did not do domestic service to sustain them. Instead she used to rent out her rooms to the students at Kansas University. Langston developed his love for books from a noticeably young age. Indeed, it was in 1907 when he went to meet his mother in Topeka, he got the chance to visit a library. He took an instant liking to it because he could borrow books from there without having to pay for them. After his grandmother died in 1915, he lived with his mother Carrie briefly, before moving in with his mother’s friend, Auntie Reed, and her husband. By this time, his mother had married a man called Homer Clark. But he had to move seeking job opportunities hence he never lived with them for an extended period.
Hughes secured his first job as a lobby and toilet cleaner in an old hostel near his school, when he was in the seventh grade. His experience during this job helped him in writing the poem ‘Brass Spittoons’, later in his life. Hughes moved to Mexico in the summer of 1919 to live with his father but did not like his materialistic outlook which made Hughes depressed and even suicidal. From then on in 1921 he joined Columbia University, despite his father’s wishes for him to join a European university. He did not like the educational environment in the University and started missing most of his classes to attend Broadway shows and even picked up many odd jobs to sustain himself. It is here that he first got drawn towards the African American literary and cultural revival movement which would later be called the Harlem Renaissance.
This is also the time when Hughes started publishing major literary pieces in popular and noteworthy literary magazines. The Brownie’s Book carried two of his poems in 1923, he wrote a one act play for The Gold Piece in July of the same year. He wrote ‘The Weary Blues’ in 1923 which was later developed into an anthology of poems with the same title. This was also the year when Hughes took a trip by sea to Africa. He worked on the ship that he was travelling on, to pay for the travel and upon first setting eyes on the continent, he felt a deep sense of connection to it and called it ‘My Africa, Motherland of the Negro’. He later visited Paris and Italy in the same year.
The years 1924 and 1925 were professionally very productive for Hughes as he was published in quite a few magazines and articles were written about him in newspapers in a favourable light. He also won a poetry prize in 1925 which eventually led to Carl Van Vechten getting few of his poems published in the form of an anthology named The Weary Blues from Alfred A. Knopp in 1926. The anthology was well received amongst the critics and had mixed responses. Alain Locke, one of Hughes critics who reviewed the anthology called him ‘the spokesperson for the black masses.’ Hughes joined Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1926 and he wrote one of his finest poems, ‘Mullato’ while being a student at this University. The poem appeared in the Saturday Review of Literature. It dealt with a very real subject of ‘White fathers and Negro mothers in the South’, which Hughes had very closely observed as someone who had lived in the American South. He finally graduated from Lincoln University in 1929 and an earlier meeting with a patron called Charlotte Mason proved to be beneficial for him in publishing his works; like his first novel Not without Laughter. It was published in 1930, which was unfortunately also the year when Hughes and Mason’s professionally relationship became strained because of their difference in viewpoints about matters related to politics and race.
It was from here on, at the age of 30 that Hughes finally decided to earn his livelihood as a full-time professional writer. This decision would not have come at a better time for him as in 1931 he received a thousand-dollar grant from the Rosenwald Fund. He used the fund to travel to many Afro-American colleges in Southern America, which in turn deepened his commitment towards racial justice and the literary expression of the same.
The period of 1932 to ’34 was very productive for Hughes and he earned a lot, thanks to his substantial literary output. When the Spanish War broke out in 1937 Hughes started working with a daily named the Baltimore Afro-American as a correspondent and it is during this stint that he met many American writers like Hemingway and critics like Malcolm Cowley along with novelist Andre Malraux and poet Pablo Neruda, who were also visiting Spain around the time.
Hughes was actively working in the sphere of socio-politics and literature right until his death in 1967. He founded the New Negro Theatre in 1939, Los Angeles and was able to publish a part of his autobiography titled The Big Sea in 1940. In 1951 he published his book- length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred which is also sometimes referred to as Harlem. The poem has a very jazzy poetic form to it and focusses on his experiences in Harlem and the Afro-American community residing there, the Harlem Renaissance and the subsequent result of the movement. The second part of his autobiography titled I Wonder as I Wonder was published in 1956. Following that he wrote Ask Your Mama in the year 1961 which was a satirical take on the inequalities prevailing in the American society. Hughes was also a highly active participant of the Black Arts Movement and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Hughes had a long and eventful career which finally came to an end in 1967 but his legacy and his believes lived on. Even at the very end of his life, he registered at the Polyclinic Hospital in New York with the name James Hughes to ensure that he did not receive any special treatment because of his literary status. He finally passed away on May 22, 1961 in the same hospital after admitting himself on the 6th of May.