African-American poet, novelist, and playwright, who became one of the foremost interpreters of racial relationships in the United States. Influenced by the Bible, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Walt Whitman, Hughes depicted realistically the ordinary lives of black people. Many of his poems, written in rhythmical language, have been set to music. Hughes's poems were meant 'to be read aloud, crooned, shouted and sung'.
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. 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. 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. On the train back Hughes wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers". It appeared in the African-American journal "Crisis" in 1921. Also in 1921 Hughes published his first play, "The Golden Piece".
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. He then moved to New York City.
In 1929 Hughes received his bachelor's degree. He was celebrated as a young promising poet of the generation, publishing his poetry in "Crisis" (1923-24) and in Alain Locke's anthology "The New Negro" (1925). His first book of verse, "The Weary Blues", appeared in 1926, followed in 1927 by "Fine Clothes to the Jew". Hughes was considered one of the leading voices in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His first novel, "Not Without Laughter" (1930), Hughes wrote with the financial support of Charlotte Mason, a wealthy white woman. The book had a cordial reception.
Hughes was one of the first black authors, who could support himself by his writings. He founded in the 1930s and 1940s black theatre groups in Harlem, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In the Spanish Civil War (1937) he served as a newspaper correspondent for "The Baltimore Afro-American". During this time he became a friend of Ernest Hemingway, with whom he attended bullfights. In 1942 he made Harlem his permanent home, although he began lecturing at universities around the country. Hughes wrote children's stories, non-fiction, and numerous works for the stage.
Hughes's inaccurate reputation for being a Communist dates from his poems in the 1930s. In 1953, during the era of McCarthyism, Hughes tested to the Senate committee that he was not, and never had been, a Communist. He named no names, well aware of blacklisting and its effects on such radicals as Paul Robeson. 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.
In the 1950s Hughes published among others "Montage of a Dream Deferred" (1951), which included his famous poem 'Harlem', "Pictorial History of a Negro in America" (1956), and edited "The Book of Negro Folklore" (1958). Hughes's autobiographical books include "The Big Sea" (1940) and "I Wonder as I Wander" (1956). For juveniles he did a series of "Famous Biographies", beginning with "Famous American Negroes" (1954). His popular comic character Jesse B. Semple, or "Simple," appeared in columns for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post. Hughes had met the prototype of the character in a bar. The ironic comments of the street-wise Harlem dweller were first collected into "Simple Speaks his Mind" (1950).
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 died in New York, on May 22, 1967.