Langston Hughes was born, James Mercer Langston Hughes on February 1, 1902, in Joplin Missouri. He was partially named after his grandfather, John Mercer Langston, a free born attorney, abolitionist and politician and the founding dean of Howard University’s law school.
Hughes had a complicated upbringing, his dad left the family shortly after his birth and his mother left to go find work, which left him in the care of his maternal grandmother. It’s his grandmother who instilled Black pride in him and introduced him to the worlds inside of books where he’d happily lose himself. After the passing of his grandmother, he reunited with his mother who had remarried in Ohio, where he graduated from high school.
He briefly lived with his father in Mexico, but Hughes came back to the states after about a year and then attended Columbia University, but dropped out in 1922 because the racism among students and teachers there was just too much. After that he worked odd jobs. One was as a crewman for six months on the S.S. Malone where he got the chance to visit West Africa and Europe.
Hughes stayed in Paris for a short while where he met and engaged in a love affair with Anne Marie Coussey, a well-off Ghanaian woman, who was educated in England and was the sister of James Coussey, a judge of the Supreme Court of the Gold Coast. Her family didn’t approve of the pair and a friend of her father was sent to Paris to put an end to the love affair with Hughes.
By 1924, Hughes was back in the U.S., and in 1925, became the personal assistant to Carter G. Woodson at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History – though back then, it was called, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Eventually, Hughes returned to school and attended Lincoln University and by 1929, received his B.A. By the way, one of his classmates was Thurgood Marshall – the first African American Supreme Court Justice.
Hughes returned to New York. Throughout his life, Hughes was a prolific writer. He wrote volumes of poetry and was published in newspapers and magazines, including a publication called, “The Crisis,” the official magazine for the NAACP in 1921, while still at Columbia. His first volume of poetry was published in 1926, titled, “The Weary Blues.” In 1930, his first novel, “Not Without Laughter,” won the Harmon Gold Medal for literature. In 1937, he traveled to Spain as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American. In 1953 he was called before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to deem whether or not he was a communist.
Of course, all that I’ve just told you is just the tip of the iceberg of what Hughes has accomplished. What I’ve given you is a very brief overview. Think of it more as an abstract. I didn’t even tell you about the Verve recording of his poems he performed with Thelonious Monk and Leonard Feather (the jazz-poetry you heard at the top of the episode).
Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967, at the age of 66 after an abdominal surgery. His ashes lie beneath a floor medallion in the foyer of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.
Now that you’ve heard a tiny bit about who he is and what he’s done, I’ll read one of Hughes’ short stories titled, “Thank You, Ma’am” found in an anthology edited by Hughes, titled, The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, published in 1967.