Black History Month Feature Heritage Months

Langston Hughes: Crisis and Jazz

article by Dillon Summers

Langston Hughes’ genre-bending Jazz poetry shook the 1940s literary world. Born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri to parents Carrie M. Langston and James N. Hughes, the family later moved to Lawrence, Kansas, which is where he spent his early childhood. Though throughout his life, he also lived in Illinois, Ohio, and Mexico. His parents separated soon after his birth. He was mostly raised by his mother, grandmother and a couple named the Reeds.

As a young child, he had a natural talent for poetry and composed the best poetry in his school. Years after finishing high school in Mexico and living with his father, his father had no admiration for his talent so he encouraged him to stop writing. Despite his father’s disapproval, Langston’s poetry found publication in The Brownies children’s books. In 1921, Langston attempted to make a wider appeal to adult readers. He wrote “A Negro Speaks of River” which appeared in Crisis magazine that same year. Crisis expanded publication of his poem. Soon after, he moved to New York and enrolled at Columbia State University. He left the college after only a year because they didn’t treat him as well as he thought they would.

After college, Langston worked in different jobs even working on a freighter. In 1924, he moved back home with his mother in Washington D.C.  Langston desired to return to his education so he worked as a hotel busboy which paid very little. He returned to college in 1925 to finish his education. That same year he won the a prestigious literary competition. The following summer, he wrote an essay for the National Urban League. He graduated from Missouri’s Lincoln University in 1929 and published his first novel “Not Without Laughter.”Years later, he wrote for the Chicago Defender, publishing “Simple.” After its publication, he became known as “the most eloquent spokesman” for African Americans.

Throughout the 1950s, he received fellowships, honorary degrees, and awards including the Anisfield- Wolf Award. By the end of his career, 47 literary publications included volumes by Langston Hughes–an astonishing career! Langston died in New York City May 22, 1967, leaving behind a career and example for upcoming African Americans to follow and emulate.

You can learn more about his extraordinary career and role in African America history here.

I could take the Harlem night
and wrap around you,
Take the neon lights and make a crown,
Take the Lenox Avenue busses,
Taxis, subways,
And for your love song tone their rumble down.
Take Harlem’s heartbeat,
Make a drumbeat,
Put it on a record, let it whirl,
And while we listen to it play,
Dance with you till day—
Dance with you, my sweet brown Harlem girl.

Excerpt from “Juke Box Love Song” by Langston Hughes

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