James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. He also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D. C. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, (Knopf, 1926) was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, (Knopf, 1930) won the Harmon gold medal for literature.
Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951). His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.
The critic Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1973) that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets . . . in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”
In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, (Simon & Schuster, 1950); Simple Stakes a Claim, (Rinehart, 1957); Simple Takes a Wife, (Simon & Schuster, 1953); and Simple’s Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965). He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, The Big Sea (Knopf, 1940), and co-wrote the play Mule Bone (HarperCollins, 1991) with Zora Neale Hurston.
Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play. N.Y.: Golden Stair Press, 1932.
A New Song. International Working Order, 1938.
Shakespeare in Harlem. Knopf, 1942.
Jim Crow's Last Stand. Atlanta: Negro Publication Society of America, 1943.
Freedom's Plow. N.Y.: Musette Publishers, 1943.
Fields of Wonder. Knopf, 1947.
One-Way Ticket. Knopf, 1949.
Montage of a Dream Deferred. Holt, 1951.
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz. Knopf, 1961.
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times, 1967, reprinted, Vintage Books, 1992.
The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. Knopf, 1994.
The Block: Poems. N.Y.: Viking, 1995.
Carol of the Brown King: Poems. N.Y.: Atheneum Books, 1997.
The Pasteboard Bandit. N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Not Without Laughter. Knopf, 1930, reprinted, Macmillan, 1986.
The Ways of White Folks. Knopf, 1934, reprinted, Random House, 1971.
Simple Speaks His Mind. Simon & Schuster, 1950.
Laughing to Keep from Crying. Holt, 1952.
Simple Takes a Wife. Simon & Schuster, 1953.
Simple Stakes a Claim. Rinehart, 1957.
Tambourines to Glory. John Day, 1958, reprinted, Hill & Wang, 1970.
Something in Common and Other Stories. Hill & Wang, 1963.
Simple's Uncle Sam. Hill & Wang, 1965.
The Return of Simple. Hill & Wang, 1994.
Short Stories of Langston Hughes. Hill & Wang, 1996.
A Negro Looks at Soviet Central Asia. Moscow and Leningrad: Co-operative Publishing Society of Foreign Workers in the U.S.S.R., 1934.
The Big Sea: An Autobiography. Knopf, 1940, reprinted, Thunder's Mouth, 1986.
(With Roy De Carava) The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Simon & Schuster, 1955, reprinted Howard University Press, 1985.
I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. Rinehart, 1956, reprinted, Thunder's Mouth, 1986.
(With Milton Meltzer) A Pictorial History of the Negro in America. Crown, 1956. 4th Edition published as A Pictorial History of Black Americans, 1973. 6th Edition published as A Pictorial History of African Americans, 1995.
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP. Norton, 1962.
(With Meltzer) Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment. Prentice-Hall, 1967.
Black Misery. Paul S. Erickson, 1969, reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1994.
Song Lyrics for the Broadway Musical Street Scene (1947) music by Kurt Weill; play by Elmer Rice.
The Langston Hughes Reader. New York: Braziller, 1958.
Simply Heavenly. Book and lyrics by Hughes, music by David Martin. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1959.
The Ballad of the Brown King. Libretto by Hughes, music by Margaret Bonds. New York: Sam Fox, 1961.
Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Edited by Webster Smalley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963.
Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes. Edited by Faith Berry. New York & Westport: Lawrence Hill, 1973.
(With Arna Bontemps) Popo and Fifina: Children of Haiti. Macmillan, 1932, reprinted, Oxford University Press, 1993.
The First Book of Rhythms. F. Watts, 1954, also published as The Book of Rhythms, Oxford University Press, 1995.
WHAT GOOD WOULD THE MOON BE? Street Scene (1947) I’ve looked in the windows at diamonds, They’re beautiful, but they’re cold. I’ve seen Broadway stars in fur coats That cost a fortune, so I’m told.
I guess I’d look nice in diamonds, And sables might add to my charms, But if someone I don’t care for should buy them, I’d rather have two loving arms.
What good would the moon be Unless the right one shared its beams? What good would dreams-come-true be If love wasn’t in those dreams? And a primrose path? What would be the fun Of walking down a path like that Without the right one?
What good would the night be Unless the right lips whisper low, “Kiss me oh darling kiss me,” While evening stars still glow?
No it won’t be a primrose path for me, No it won’t be diamonds and gold, But maybe it will be Someone who'll love me, Someone who'll love just me To have and to hold.
The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighborhood in New York City as a black cultural mecca in the early 20th Century and the subsequent social and artistic explosion that resulted. Lasting roughly from the 1910s through the mid-1930s, the period is considered a golden age in African American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and art.
The northern Manhattan neighborhood of Harlem was meant to be an upper-class white neighborhood in the 1880s, but rapid overdevelopment led to empty buildings and desperate landlords seeking to fill them.
In the early 1900s, a few middle-class black families from another neighborhood known as Black Bohemia moved to Harlem, and other black families followed. Some white residents initially fought to keep African Americans out of the area, but failing that many whites eventually fled.
Outside factors led to a population boom: From 1910 to 1920, African American populations migrated in large numbers from the South to the North, with prominent figures like W.E.B. Du Bois leading what became known as the Great Migration.
In 1915 and 1916, natural disasters in the south put black workers and sharecroppers out of work. Additionally, during and after World War I, immigration to the United States fell, and northern recruiters headed south to entice black workers to their companies.
By 1920, some 300,000 African Americans from the South had moved north, and Harlem was one of the most popular destinations for these families.
This considerable population shift resulted in a Black Pride movement with leaders like Du Bois working to ensure that black Americans got the credit they deserved for cultural areas of life. Two of the earliest breakthroughs were in poetry, with Claude McKay’s collection Harlem Shadows in 1922 and Jean Toomer’s Cane in 1923.
Novelist and du Bois protege Jessi Redmond Fauset’s 1924 novel There Is Confusion explored the idea of black Americans finding a cultural identity in a white-dominated Manhattan. Fauset was literary editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis and developed a magazine for black children with Du Bois.
The debut event of Fauset’s novel was engineered for a larger purpose by sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson, who was integral in shaping the Harlem literary scene. Johnson used the novel’s debut party to organize resources to create Opportunity, the National Urban League magazine he founded and edited, a success that bolstered writers like Langston Hughes.
Hughes was at that party along with other promising black writers and editors, as well as powerful white New York publishing figures. Soon many writers found their work appearing in mainstream magazines like Harper’s.
Zora Neal Hurston
Anthropologist and folklorist Zora Neal Hurston courted controversy through her involvement with a publication called FIRE!!
Helmed by white author and Harlem writers’ patron Carl Van Vechten, the magazine exoticized the lives of Harlem residents. Van Vechten’s previous fiction stirred up interest among whites to visit Harlem and take advantage of the cultural and night life there.
Though Van Vechten’s work was condemned by older luminaries like DuBois, it was embraced by Hurston, Hughes and others.
The music that percolated in and then boomed out of Harlem in the 1920s was jazz, often played at speakeasies offering illegal liquor. Jazz became a great draw for not only Harlem residents, but outside white audiences also.
Some of the most celebrated names in American music regularly performed in Harlem—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway, often accompanied by elaborate floor shows. Tap dancers like John Bubbles and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson were also popular.
With the groundbreaking new music came a vibrant nightlife. The Savoy opened in 1927, an integrated ballroom with two bandstands that featured continuous jazz and dancing well past midnight, sometimes in the form of battling bands helmed by Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford and King Oliver.
While it was fashionable to frequent Harlem nightlife, entrepreneurs realized that some white people wanted to experience black culture without having to socialize with African Americans and created clubs to cater to them.
The most successful of these was the Cotton Club, which featured frequent performances by Ellington and Calloway. Some in the community derided the existence of such clubs, while others believed they were a sign that black culture was moving towards greater acceptance.
The cultural boom in Harlem gave black actors opportunities for stage work that had previously been withheld. Traditionally, if black actors appeared onstage, it was in a minstrel show musical and rarely in a serious drama with non-stereotypical roles.
At the center of this stage revolution was the versatile Paul Robeson, an actor, singer, writer, activist, and more. Robeson first moved to Harlem in 1919 while studying law at Columbia University and continually maintained a social presence in the area, where he was considered an inspirational but approachable figure.
Robeson believed that arts and culture were the best paths forward for Black Americans to overcome racism and make advances in a white-dominated culture.
Black musical revues were staples in Harlem, and by the mid-1920s had moved south to Broadway, expanding into the white world. One of the earliest of these was Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s Shuffle Along, which launched the career of Josephine Baker.
White patron Van Vechten helped bring more serious black stage work to Broadway, though largely the work of white authors and considered to fall short of the potential. It wasn’t until 1929 that a black-authored play about black lives, Wallace Thurman and William Rapp’s Harlem, played Broadway.
Playwright Willis Richardson offered more serious opportunities for black actors with a several one-act plays written in the 1920s, as well as articles in Opportunity magazine outlining his goals. Stock companies like the Krigwa Players and the Harlem Experimental Theater also gave black actors serious roles.
The visual arts were never welcoming to black artists, with art schools, galleries and museums shutting them out. Sculptor Meta Warrick Fuller, a protege of Auguste Rodin, explored African American themes in her work and influenced Du Bois to champion black visual artists.
The most celebrated Harlem Renaissance artist is Aaron Douglas, often called as “the Father of Black American Art,” who adapted African techniques to realize paintings and murals, as well as book illustration.
Sculptor Augusta Savage’s 1923 bust of Du Bois garnered considerable attention. She followed that up with small, clay portraits of everyday African Americans, and would later be pivotal enlisting black artists into the Federal Art Project, a division of the Work Progress Administration (WPA).
James VanDerZee’s photography captured Harlem daily life, as well as by commissioned portraits in his studio that he worked to fill with optimism and separate philosophically from the horrors of the past.
Harlem Renaissance Ends
The end of Harlem’s creative boom began with the stock market crash of 1929 and wavered until Prohibition ended in 1933, which meant white patrons no longer sought out the illegal alcohol in uptown clubs.
By 1935 many pivotal Harlem residents had moved on seeking work, replaced by the continuous flow of refugees from the South, many requiring public assistance.
That same year, a riot broke out following the arrest of a young shoplifter, resulting in three dead, hundreds injured, and millions of dollars in property damage, as well as serving as a marker of the end of the Harlem Renaissance.