Langston Hughes

Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964, photographer. 1936 Feb. 29. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-92598 (b&w film copy neg.), LOT 12735, no. 540 [P&P]

African American, Federal Writers’ Project, Literature

Langston Hughes


Preeminent Harlem Renaissance writer James Mercer Langston Hughes made a lasting impression on American cultural expression not only as a poet, author, and playwright, but also as a documenter and anthologist of African American folklife. 

Born in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes was raised by his mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, and maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston, and had infrequent interaction with his father, James Nathaniel Hughes, who expatriated to Mexico. Reared mostly in Lawrence, Kansas, he grew up in several towns throughout the Midwest. Recognition of Hughes’ creative writing began shortly after he graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio. In 1921, his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in The Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). At age 19, Hughes moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, but he eventually transferred on a full scholarship to study poetry at Lincoln University (Pennsylvania) and earned an AB degree in 1929.

As a young man, Hughes took on various odd jobs to make ends meet, such as working aboard a freighter to Africa or as a busboy in Washington, DC. During the 1920s, he became a leading writer during the Harlem Renaissance. His writing expanded as did his exploration of culture through travel to Europe, the Soviet Union, and Asia, as well as within the U.S. In 1927, he and fellow writer and folklorist Zora Neale Hurston traveled through the South collecting African American vernacular culture and songs in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In three trips between 1927 and 1931, Hughes visited Cuba, immersing himself in its African- based rhythms and worldviews. During the 1930s, Hughes participated in the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project and, during a time of economic stress and racial discrimination, he lectured regularly, won numerous awards, and secured prestigious Fellowships as well as received patronage to support himself as a writer. A polyglot, Hughes translated international works into English, and was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.

Hughes’ admiration of Black vernacular and deep interest in urban cultural expression led to his artistic renderings of African American life as well as anthologies of blues, poetry, folklore, and African American history. Hughes wrote numerous works for adults and children — poetry, short stories, plays, novels, libretti, criticism, and newspaper columns–often using vernacular language as well as jazz and blues forms. 

In homage to his contribution to African American culture, Hughes’ ashes were interred under a mosaic floor in the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

Among his works relevant to folklore studies are:

A Pictorial History of the Negro in America (1956)

With coeditor, Arna Bontemps. The Book of Negro Folklore (1958)

Cheryl T. Schiele

(coming soon)