Langston Hughes

On this day in 1901, Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Mo. (Research belatedly found in 2018 that Hughes, who had claimed to be born in 1902, had shaved a year off of his age.) For four decades he chronicled the black experience and perspective in powerful poetry, fiction, nonfiction and children’s books. The Nation magazine published his influential essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), in which Hughes advocated racial pride and independent artistry, giving the Harlem Renaissance its due. He enrolled at Columbia University and finished his degree at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pa., in 1926.

His first book of poetry was The Weary Blues, his first novel was Not Without Laughter (1930) and his first book of short stories was The Ways of White Folks. His play Mulatto (1935) ran successfully on Broadway. His autobiography, The Big Sea, came out in 1940, followed in 1956 by I Wonder As I Wander. Among his many other books was Jim Crow’s Last Stand (1943).

Hughes’ satire on corruption in black storefront churches, Tambourines to Glory (1963), was not popular with black clergy. Hughes, who traveled widely all his life, had visited the Soviet Union and was forced to appear before a congressional committee in 1953 duing the “Red scare.” He wrote a column for 20 years for the Chicago Defender.

Hughes had a complicated relationship with religion, according to Wallace Best, author of Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem (2017).  Hughes strongly disagreed with characterizations of him as anti-religious or atheist while reserving the right to criticize dogma and the Christian church. Best called him a “thinker about religion.”

He never married and was generally seen by contemporaries and later by scholars and critics as gay or perhaps asexual. He died in New York City at age 66 from complications after abdominal surgery related to prostate cancer. (D. 1967)

PHOTO: Hughes photographed by Gordon Parks in 1943.

Freedom From Religion Foundation