Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes was mostly raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas after his parents divorced when he was very young. He came to New York to attend Columbia at 20, lived in Mexico for a year, spent several years traveling and working odd jobs, and finished his college degree at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He was an important contributor to the Harlem Renaissance, traveled and was read all over the world and died in New York in 1967.
Also a prolific writer of novels, short stories, plays and essays, Hughes took it as his poetic vocation “to explain and illuminate the Negro condition in America,” and became known as Poet Laureate of black life and culture. His early collections incorporated elements of jazz and blues music in traditional verse forms, and in the 1950s his poems were infused with bebop rhythms. He embodied his radical ideals in poems of exhortation and portrayed black characters in both lyric and satirical modes.
Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance:
Hughes’ essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in The Nation in 1926, served as a manifesto for the generation of young black artists that arose to prominence in Harlem in the 1920s. It was an eloquent statement of his ideals of race pride and artistic freedom: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame.... We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.... we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
Hughes was a radical democrat, an idealist and a civil rights advocate his whole life. In the 1930s he spent a year in the Soviet Union, wrote his most radical poems which were published by a socialist organization, and founded Harlem Suitcase Theater which staged his black nationalist agitprop plays. It was these leftist associations that led to harassment from conservatives, culminating in his subpoenaed testimony before Senator McCarthy’s House UnAmerican Activities Committee in 1953.