Langston Hughes’ name has long been synonymous with poetry, jazz, and the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century. But in addition to being a prolific poet, the Missouri native was also a novelist, a playwright, a war correspondent, and above all else, a storyteller.
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes became a traveler at a young age. After his parents split, he was sent to live with his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, until he was 13, at which point he joined his mother and her new husband in Lincoln, Illinois. (His father moved to Mexico.) It was in Lincoln that Hughes began to write poetry. When the family finally settled in Cleveland, Ohio, one of Hughes’ teachers introduced him to the poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, both of whom he would later cite as major influences for his work.
After graduating from high school, Hughes continued to travel, living in Mexico for a year before attending Columbia University in New York City in 1921. He dropped out after just one year. To support himself, he took on a wide array of odd jobs, including busboy, launderer, and assistant cook. He got involved with the Harlem Renaissance, that historic blossoming of Black intellectual, literary, and artistic life that grew roots in uptown Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood and took hold of the country. Hughes further flexed his creative muscles by collaborating with jazz legends-in-the-making Charles Mingus and Thelonius Monk, among others. But a few years later, Hughes was itching to move again, so he took a job as a steward on a freighter bound for Africa and Spain. He then lived in Paris for a while before making his way back to the States, where he found himself in Washington, D.C. He published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, shortly afterward, in 1926.
That same year, Hughes penned a seminal essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which would later become a manifesto for fellow young Black writers and artists. Hughes’ work always leaned extensively into the friction of race and race relations, earning him both admiration and criticism. He was known for “breaking with the establishment here [by] … asking the younger writers and artists to take pride in their blackness and their black heritage,” wrote Stephan Evans, a lecturer at Kansas University. “Hughes is, above all, what you might call a poet of the people in that he writes his poetry and fiction in a way that makes it accessible to just about everybody.”
Hughes wrote about the Black experience in a way that didn’t cater to the white gaze, and in doing so, enraged some Black contemporaries who might have preferred not to expose the blemishes of their shared culture to the mainstream. But Hughes pushed on, writing 16 collections of poetry, 12 novels and short story collections, 11 major plays, eight books for children, seven works of nonfiction, and numerous essays over the course of his career. “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame,” Hughes wrote in his essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” “If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.”
Among his most famous works are the poem “Let America Be America Again,” which was published in Esquire in 1936; the poem “Harlem (What happens to a dream deferred?),” published in 1951; and the “Simple” series, which followed the fictional character Jesse B. Semple, a working class Black man living in Harlem who served as a way into cultural critique. Later in life, Hughes traveled frequently to guest lecture around the U.S., and taught creative writing at Atlanta University (what is today Clark Atlanta University). He died in 1969, leaving behind a literary legacy that became foundational for future generations of aspiring Black poets and artists.
Here, we’ve collected some of the most inspiring lines from Hughes’ poetry over the years to commemorate his inquisitive, optimistic spirit.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
– “Mother to Son”
Stop laughin’, stop lovin’, stop livin’—
But I don’t care!
I’m still here!
– “Still Here”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America
– “I, Too”
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
– “Let America Be America Again”
Loud laughers in the hands of Fate—
– “My People”
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human beings.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
– “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”
Though you may hear me holler
And you may see me cry—
I’ll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.
– “Life Is Fine”