March 13, 2024

The Life and Legacy
of Langston Hughes

One of America’s most popular poets, Langston Hughes was the first Black American to earn his living solely from his writing and public lectures. Hughes was a central figure of the Harlem Renaissance which revolutionized mainstream perceptions of Black American cultural and intellectual output in the 1920s and 30s. His manifesto, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, helped to define and organise the purpose of the Harlem Renaissance and established him immediately as a leading Black intellectual.

Hughes’ early poetry captured the energy and rhythms of jazz and blues music, genres that were conceived of and performed predominantly by Black musicians at the time. The beguiling immediacy of Hughes’ verse caught the imagination of the American literati after being published in Crisis and other magazines like it across America. He understood that there was greater appeal in writing poetry that concerned the everyman and that amplifying the voice of that everyman was a noble pursuit. Perhaps to this effect, Hughes turned his back on his academic career at Columbia University in favor of the high seas, where he worked as a sailor on a freight ship. This gave him a singular perspective on the plight of, in his own words, “dark-skinned” people, not just in America but in countries all over the world.

“But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world,

a world of subway trains, and work, work, work;

the tom-tom of joy and laughter,

and pain swallowed in a smile.”

—Langston Hughes, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Hughes recognized the need for a “cultural nationalism”; a brotherhood of dark-skinned people that disregarded international borders and emphasized the shared plight of Black people everywhere in the advent of 20th Century globalization. He returned to America as an American artist with a truly international perspective. Having seen how differently Black people were treated in Paris, and Europe more generally, Hughes began to see socialist politics as the only way to rid America of its Jim Crow regime. His work became more of a call to action, and plays like Scottsboro Limited (1932) sought to connect Black Americans with the white working classes and instigate political resistance to the capitalist state.

Despite the radical message of much of Hughes’ work in this period, its tone aimed to proliferate the notion and authenticity of Black joy. Hughes cared deeply about sharing the ingrained sense of humor and humanity in Black communities with the wider reading public, and felt this would undermine the theme of victimhood that too often (in Hughes’ view) emerged from Black characters in contemporary literature.

While his first attempt at writing a novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), was warmly received, it was the theater where Hughes really found a large audience and commercial success. His fascination with Black music, and the showmanship of Black preaching, led naturally to the world of gospel music. His two best known musicals, Tambourines to Glory (1963) and Black Nativity (1961), are steeped in the sounds of gospel music, a genre that has seeped back into popular music recently.

This devotion to capturing the broad themes of Black life in America — be it music, suffering, laughter, or religion — makes Hughes one of the most diverse writers of his time. He found success in poetry, songwriting, playwriting, novel writing, reportage, and academia. His reach is so broad and influential, and touched so many lives, that today he can truly be considered the grandfather of Black writing in the United States.

“Langston put his arms around the whole diaspora, no matter how distant or mongrel, no matter how unlike we all may be in history or culture, and in this way he inspired diaspora artists of every subsequent generation and all around the world. In Langston’s worldview black sibling-hood stretched the earth”

— Zadie Smith, best-selling novelist

Even as an autobiographer, Hughes made an insurmountable contribution to the archive of Black life, with his biographer Arnold Rampersad stating that the Harlem Renaissance section of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), would “never be surpassed as an original source of insight and information on the age.” Hughes lived just long enough to see the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, as well as the emergence of the Black Panthers and a new kind of activism take hold of the American imagination. Regardless, Hughes’ many literary achievements are remembered today not only for their sensitivity, prowess, and style, but also for their contribution to the long journey of Black activism. Langston Hughes will forever be remembered as a writer of great purpose whose conviction and genius irreversibly elevated the status of Black writing in the Western world.