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Langston Hughes (James Mercer Hughes) Biography

(1902–67), (James Mercer Hughes), The New Negro, Crisis, Opportunity, The Weary Blues

African-American writer, born in Joplin, Missouri, educated at Columbia and Lincoln Universities. Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, who sought to capture the dominant oral and improvisatory traditions of black culture in written form. In the 1920s he drifted around Europe and North America with a variety of jobs; he wrote and published poetry continuously, including eleven poems in an anthology entitled The New Negro (1925). Some of his early poetry was published in Crisis and Opportunity, two leading black journals of the 1920s. After being noticed by some culturally sympathetic white benefactors, his first collection, The Weary Blues (1926), was published, which characteristically employed jazz rhythms to investigate black experience. Other volumes of poetry followed, including Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), Dear Lovely Death (1931), The Negro Mother (1931), The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), and Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse (1932). A novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), consolidated his reputation, and he was soon known as the ‘Negro Poet Laureate’. During and after the activist 1930s, Hughes's writing took on a political militancy. He worked as a journalist and produced newspaper sketches of the popular black hero Jesse B. Semple, later collected in Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) and Simple Stakes a Claim (1957). He founded black theatres in Harlem, Los Angeles, and Chicago and published collections of black writing, including The Poetry of the Negro (1949) and The Book of Negro Folklore (1958). He wrote autobiographies, screenplays, and plays like Mulatto (1936) and Black Nativity (1961); and continued to write poetry, with the volumes A New Song (1938), Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), Fields of Wonder (1947), and One Way Ticket (1949), including such famous anthems of the civil rights movement as ‘I, Too, Sing America’ and ‘Freedom Train’. He is probably best known for his collection of short stories entitled The Ways of White Folks (1933), in which he investigates black/white relations with an acute eye for detail. The Big Sea (1940) and I Wonder as I Wander (1956) are two volumes of autobiography. His later poetry appeared in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Ask Your Mama (1961), The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967), and an edition entitled Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (1973). His other prose includes some short stories about Negro urban experiences and problems in Laughing to Keep from Crying (1952) and Fight for Freedom (1962), about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A collection of some of his letters appeared in Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes. Letters 1925–1967 (1980), edited by C. H. Nichols. See also ethnicity.

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Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Honest Ulsterman to Douglas Hyde Biography