Langston Hughes (1902-1967) is perhaps the best-known African American poet of the twentieth-century. Born in Joplin, Missouri, as a young man Hughes also spent time in Mexico, Chicago, and Kansas before returning to Cleveland for high school. Hughes graduated high school in 1920, and spent time in Mexico before moving to New York City, where he studied briefly at Columbia University.
Hughes had complicated relationships with both of his parents, James Nathaniel Hughes, and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes. His father, James Hughes, worked for mining companies in the U.S., before moving to Mexico where he operated a ranch and became a financially successful businessmen. Though both he and Carrie Mercer Hughes were Black, James Hughes expressed resentment about the contraints of living within the institutionalized racism and segregation of the United States at that time. James Hughes and Carrie Mercer Langston Hughes were separated and divorced when Langston Hughes was quite young, and Carrie Hughes (identified by Hughes biographers as Carrie Cook) lived in various cities in the midwest, including Topeka, Kansas, Cleveland, Ohio, and McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
Only nineteen years old when he wrote it (likely in the summer of 1920), Hughes published his hugely influential poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in The Crisis in June 1921. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, Hughes describes writing the poem while on a train to Mexico in the summer of 1920 (see an excerpt from The Big Sea here).
During that same time period (1920-1921), Hughes was very active publishing poems, essays, and a short play in The Brownies' Book, a magazine for children of color edited by W.E.B. Du Bois and Jessie Fauset. Of the many pieces he published in this magazine (indexed below), two that stand out as indicators of his subsequent writing might be "The Laments of a Vanquished Beau" and "Winter Sweetness."
In his 1920s, Hughes traveled extensively around the world, working as a sailor on various freight and merchant vessels, as well as as a cook in Paris night clubs. Working as a sailor, he also visited west Africa, which he describes in memorable passages in The Big Sea (1939). Hughes then returned to the U.S. where he lived for a year (1925) with his mother in Washington, DC. In Washington, DC, and during periodic trips to New York, Hughes became well-known amongst the new generation of African American writers and critics, including the editor Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Countee Cullen, and many others. In 1925, Hughes won a major poetry prize from the magazine Opportunity. This helped him get a book contract for his first book of poems, The Weary Blues, which was published in January 1926. Hughes enrolled in Lincoln University, a historically Black university outside of Philadelphia, and completed a B.A. degree there in 1929. During this time period, Hughes was financially supported by a wealthy white patron, Charlotte Mason, but that relationship ended in 1930.
Hughes won many literary prizes in the 1920s (besides the afore-mentioned competition in Opportunity, Hughes also won a prize from The Crisis in 1926, and the Harmon Gold Award for Literature). Hughes' reputation was strengthened by the prominent place he was assigned in numerous Harlem Renaissance anthologies, including Alain Locke's The New Negro: an Interpretation.
In 1930, Hughes again went abroad, first to Haiti and then to the Soviet Union. During the 1930s, Hughes was at his most politically radical, and frequently contributed to Communist journals. He wrote the poem "Goodbye Christ" around this time, though he would later renounce it.
Timeline: Langston Hughes' Early Career (1920-1930)
1920: Hughes graduates from Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio
Fall 1920: Hughes spends the fall in Toluca, Mexico, where his father lives (James Hughes worked in mining, and also operated a cattle ranch)
January 1921: Hughes publishes two poems in The Brownies' Book
April 1921: Hughes publishes a nonfiction essay in The Brownies' Book, "In a Mexican City"
June 1921: Hughes publishes "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in The Crisis Magazine
July 1921: Hughes publishes "Aunt Sue's Stories" in The Crisis
July 1921: Hughes publishes "The Gold Piece: a Play That Might Be True" in The Brownies' Book
August 1921: Hughes publishes "The Laments of a Vanquished Beau" in The Brownies' Book
November 1921: Hughes publishes "Thanksgiving Time" and "Those Who Have No Turkey" in The Brownies' Book
January 1922: Hughes publishes "The Negro" in The Crisis
Fall 1921-Spring 1922: Hughes lives in Harlem and studies at Columbia University. In June of 1922, Hughes withdraws from Columbia
Fall 1922-Spring 1923: Hughes lives in New York, takes on a variety of jobs, including as a delivery boy for a florist. In the fall and winter, he works as a mess boy on a ship docked at Jones Point, some distance outside of New York City.
December 1922: Hughes publishes "Mother to Son" in The Crisis
May 1923: Hughes publishes three poems in The World Tomorrow, including "Our Land." These are his first poems published in a "mainstream" (predominantly white audience) magazine.
June 1923: Hughes joines a ship that sails to West Africa, allowing the young poet to visit Senegal, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, and the Congo. This trip is memorably descrbed in Hughes' autobiography, The Big Sea.
August 1923: The Crisis publishes a full-page spread of Hughes' poems (see Hughes poems in The Crisis)
1924: Hughes spends several months living in Paris before returning again to New York. He works as a cook, and according to his account in The Big Sea lives for a time with a Russian dancer named Sonya.
March 1924: Hughes publishes "The White Ones" in Opportunity. Rampersad indicates this poem was written in Africa, and may have been inspired by Hughes' disgust with the racial hierachies evident in the European colonial project.
1925: Hughes lives in Washington, DC with his mother.
January 1925: Hughes publishes "A Song to a Negro Wash-Woman" in The Crisis (uncollected).
March 1925: Hughes publishes "Liars" in Opportunity
March 1925: Several of Hughes' poems, including "Dream Variation," "The Dream Keeper," "An Earth Song," and "I, Too" appear in a special issue of Survey Graphic edited by Alain Locke. An expanded version of the speciall issue would be printed in the fall as The New Negro: an Intepretation.
May 1925: Hughes' poem "The Weary Blues" wins first prize in the Opportunity Magazine poetry context. Carl Van Vechten solicits a collection of poems for publication, and in the fall Hughes signs a contract with Knopf to publish The Weary Blues.
June 1925: Hughes' long poem "America" appears in Opportunity.
December 1925: Hughes publishes "To a Negro Jazz Band in a Parisian Cabaret" in The Crisis. (Uncollected)
January 1926: Hughes publishes his first book of poems, The Weary Blues appears (published by Knopf)
January 1926: Hughes publishes "To Midnight Nan at Leroy's" in Opportunity
May 1926: Hughes publishes "Love Song for Lucinda" in Opportunity
Fall 1926: Hughes restarts his undergraduate career, this time as a student at Lincoln University, an HBCU in the Philadelphia suburbs
1927: Hughes publishes his second book of poems, Fine Clothes to the Jew, which receives mixed reviews in the Black press (though later literary historians, including Arnold Rampersad, have embraced it as a high point in Hughes' career) He also travels in the south with Zora Neale Hurston and begins his relationship with wealthy white patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason.
1929: Hughes graduates from Lincoln University.
1930: Hughes publishes his first novel, Not Without Laughter. Hughes breaks with Charlotte Osgood Mason and also has a painful disagreement with Zora Neale Hurston over the authorship of a collaborative project, the play Mule Bone.
1931: Hughes travels in Haiti and publishes poems with the communist magazine New Masses.
1932: Hughes Publishes a book of previously published poems for children with Knopf, The Dream Keeper. Hughes travels to the Soviet Union, where he lives for a year.