Rest at pale evening…
A tall slim tree…
Night coming tendrerly
Black like me.
(from Dream Variations, 1926)
James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. His mother was a school teacher, she also wrote poetry. His father, James Nathaniel Hughes, was a storekeeper. He had wanted to become a lawyer, but he had been denied to take the bar exam. Hughes’s parents separated and his mother moved from city to city in search of work. In his rootless childhood, Hughes lived in Mexico, Topeka, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana and Buffalo. Part of his childhood Hughes lived with his grandmother. At the age of 13 he moved back with his mother and her second husband. Later the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Hughes’s stepfather worked in the steel mills. During this period Hughes found the poems of Carl Sandburg, whose unrhymed free verse influenced him deeply. After graduating from a high school in Cleveland, Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his light-skinned father, who had found there a release as a successful cattle rancher from racism of the North. On the train, when he returned to the north, Hughes wrote one of his most famous poems, ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’. It appeared in the African-American journal Crisis (1921). As an adolescent in Cleveland he participated in the activity of Karamu Players, and published in 1921 his first play, THE GOLDEN PIECE in 1921.
Supported by his father, Hughes entered in the early 1920s the Columbia University, New York. For the permanent disappointment of his father, Hughes soon abandoned his studies, and participated in more entertaining jazz and blues activities in nearby Harlem. Disgusted with life at the university and to see the world, he enlisted as a steward on a freighter bound to West Africa. He traveled to Paris, worked as a doorman and a bouncer of a night club, and continued to Italy.
After his return to the United States, Hughes worked in menial jobs and wrote poems, which earned him scholarship to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. According an anecdote, Hughes was “discovered” by the poet Vachel Lindsay in Washington. Lindsay was dining at the Wardman Park Hotel, where Hughes worked as a busboy, and dropped his poems beside the Lindsay’s dinner plate. Lindsay included several of them in his poetry reading. It prompted interviews of the “busboy poet”. Hughes quit his job and moved to New York City.
In 1929 Hughes received his bachelor’s degree. Hughes emphasized the importance of African culture and shared Du Bois’s belief that renewal could only come from an understanding of African roots.
“My old man died in a fine big house.
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I’m gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?”
In several of his poems, Hughes had expressed with ardent voice sociopolitical protests. He portrayed people, whose lives were impacted by racism and sexual conflicts, he wrote about southern violence, Harlem street life, poverty, prejudice, hunger, hopelessness. But basically he was a conscientious artist, kept his middle-of-the road stance and worked hard to chronicle the black American experience, contrasting the beauty of the soul with the oppressive circumstance.
Like a banner
For the proud –
Not like a shroud.
(from Color, 1943)
In his later years Hughes held posts at the Universities of Chicago and Atlanta. The poet also witnessed that doctoral dissertations already begun to be written about him – the earliest book on his work appeared already in the 1930s. Hughes never married and there has been unrelevant speculations about his sexuality. Several of his friends were homosexual, among them Carl Van Vechten, who wrote the controversial novel Nigger Heaven (1926) – Hughes had recommended the choice of the title – but several were not. Hughes died in Polyclinic Hospital in New York, on May 22, 1967, of complications after surgery. His collection of political poems, THE PANTHER AND THE LASH (1967), reflected the anger and militancy of the 1960s. The book had been rejected first by Knopf in 1964 as too risky. Hughes’s own history of NAACP appeared in 1962; he had received a few year’s earlier the NAACP’S Spingarn Medal.
Hughes published more than 35 books, he was a versatile writer, but he hated “long novels, narrative poems”, as he once said. Although the Harlem Renaissance faded away during the Great Depression, its influence is seen in the writings of later authors, such as James Baldwin, who, however, criticized Hughes’s poetic achievement. From the late 1940’s through the 1950’s Hughes revised under pressure his poems- may of them became less tough.