Langston Hughes

A Harlem Renaissance Poet

Biography

Life and Career

Langston Hughes wrote from 1926 to 1967. In that time he wrote more than 60 books, including poems, novels, short stories, plays, children's poetry, musicals, operas, and autobiographies. He was the first African American to support himself as a writer, and he wrote from his own experience.

Langston Hughes, whose full name was James Mercer Langston Hughes, was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. His childhood was lonely and he often occupied himself with books. It was Hughes's grandmother, a great storyteller, who transferred to him her love of literature and the importance of becoming educated.

Hughes wrote his first poem in the eighth grade. A year later the family relocated to Cleveland, Ohio. Despite all the moving around, Hughes was a good student and excelled in his studies.

After high school, Hughes traveled in Mexico, Europe, and Africa. By 1924 he had settled in Harlem, New York, and was an important figure during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was an African-American cultural movement that focused on literature, music, theater, art, and politics. One of his favorite pastimes was to sit in clubs and listen to the blues as he wrote his poetry.

Hughes died on May 22, 1967, in New York, NY.

Two Influential Poems

I, Too

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I'll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody'll dare
Say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"
Then.

Besides,
They'll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed--

I, too, am America.
This poem shows a quiet resistance to the racism going on at the time. The speaker isn't throwing himself a pity party because he's being oppressed. He's using that time to gather himself and grow stronger so that, when the time comes, white people will notice him and realize he has worth. Here is an excerpt from The Great Debaters. Washington's inflection and pacing really help to add meaning to the poem.
I Too Am America - Great Debaters

Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

This poem is timeless. It is just as relevant now as it was when it was written. From abolishing Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights Movement to the L.A. Race Riots, even to the gay rights movement happening today, it is questioning what will happen if we don't fight for our dreams of equality. This poem is also open to interpretation. The clip below doesn't talk about the "dream" as racial equality, but for competing at the Olympic Games.
Nike - A Dream Deferred