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 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).
In his 20s, 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 Hughes 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.