Poet, Novelist, Playwright: 1902-1967
The words of “Let America Be America Again” are as alive and relevant today as they were when Langston Hughes wrote them in 1938. They remind us that we, the people, are responsible for our government and our future.
Hughes’s words have inspired—and challenged—millions of people since he published his first volume of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926. He was among the first to write about the African American experience in language that reflected and celebrated the culture.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, to a black mother and a white father who divorced when he was young, Hughes was raised mostly by his grandmother, Mary Langston. It was Mary, the widow of an abolitionist who died at Harper’s Ferry as a member of John Brown’s band, who largely inspired Hughes to write about African Americans. He wrote his first poem when he was 13.
Hughes attended Columbia University for a year, and then traveled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. He continued to write, and by the time he returned to the U.S. in 1924, he had gained a reputation as a gifted young poet in African American literary circles. His work was central to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Among his innovations was the fusion of traditional verse with jazz and blues.
In the early 1930s, Hughes’s work took a more political turn after he visited the former Soviet Union. He spent the rest of the decade writing plays and poems that often blended socialist messages, Black Nationalism, and the blues.
Throughout his life, Hughes remained convinced that art should be made as accessible to as many people as possible. He made a monumental contribution to this effort with nine volumes of poetry, eight short story collections, two novels, a number of children’s books, a two-volume autobiography, and many plays, essays, and translations. With his powerful words, Hughes celebrated black culture and music and a universal humanity.