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Simply Heavenly

Musique: Margaret Martin
Paroles: Langston Hughes
Livret: Langston Hughes

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Life (1902-1967)

The ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem’ was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri.
He was the great-great-grand nephew of John Mercer Langston, the first African American to be elected to public office in 1855. His maternal grandmother's first husband had died at Harpers Ferry as a member of John Brown, a famous abolitionist's, band. Her second husband (Hughes's grandfather) had also been a militant abolitionist. His parents divorced when he was a small child, and his father moved to Mexico. Raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, Hughes was a lonely child who was driven, as he once said, 'to books, and the wonderful world in books.'

He then moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, eventually settling in Cleveland, Ohio. Hughes attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio, where he began writing poetry in the eighth grade, and was selected as Class Poet. His father didn't think he would be able to make a living as at writing, and encouraged him to pursue a more practical career, paying his tuition to Columbia University on the condition he study engineering. After a short time, Langston dropped out of the program with a B+ average, and meanwhile he continued writing poetry. His first published poem was also one of his most famous, 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers', and it appeared in Brownie's Book, the youth magazine of the NAACP's (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) publication Crisis.

In 1923, Hughes worked abroad a freighter, travelling to the Senegal, Nigeria, the Cameroons, Belgium Congo, Angola, and Guinea in Africa, and later to Italy and France, Russia and Spain. He returned to Harlem, in 1924, the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. During this period, his work was frequently published and his writing flourished. His major early influences were Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, as well as the Black poets Paul Laurence Dunbar, a master of both dialect and standard verse, and Claude McKay, a radical socialist who also wrote accomplished lyric poetry. One of his favourite pastimes whether abroad, in Washington, DC. Or Harlem, New York was sitting in the clubs listening to blues, jazz and writing poetry. Through these experiences a new rhythm emerged in his writing, and a series of poems such as 'The Weary Blues' were penned.

In 1926, in the Nation, a liberal weekly magazine, he skillfully argued the need for both race pride and artistic independence in his most memorable essay, 'The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain':
"We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves."

By this time, Hughes had enrolled at the historically Black Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, from which he would graduate in 1929. In 1927 he began one of the most important relationships of his life, with his patron Mrs Charlotte Mason, or ‘Godmother’, who generously supported him for two years. She supervised the writing of his first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930) about a sensitive, Black midwestern boy and his struggling family. However, their relationship collapsed about the time the novel appeared, and Hughes sank into a period of intense personal unhappiness and disillusionment. One result was his firm turn to the far left in politics. During a year (1932-1933) spent in the Soviet Union, he wrote his most radical verse. A year in Carmel, California, led to a collection of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934). This volume is marked by pessimism about race relations, as well as a sardonic realism.

In the mid-thirties, Hughes turned to the stage and wrote several plays, the most notable success being his play Mulatto, on the twinned themes of mixed-race children and parental rejection, which was a hit on Broadway in 1935. In 1938 he founded the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which staged his agitprop drama Don't You Want to Be Free? The play, employing several of his poems, vigorously blended Black nationalism, the blues, and socialist exhortation. The same year, a socialist organisation published a pamphlet of his radical verse, 'A New Song.'

With World War II, Hughes became disillusioned with communism and moved more to the centre politically, releasing his first volume of autobiography, The Big Sea (1940) and a book of verse Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), where he once returned to the blues form for inspiration. This collection, as well as another, his Jim Crow's Last Stand (1943), continued to strongly attack racial segregation. Perhaps his finest literary achievement during the war was the creation of the character Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, who would later go on to be the subject of five collections edited by Hughes, starting in 1950 with Simple Speaks His Mind. (See the section on Langston Hughes and Jesse B Semple on page 10) In the late forties Kurt Weill and Elmer Rice chose Hughes as the lyricist for their Street Scene (1947). This production was hailed as a breakthrough in the development of American opera; for Hughes, the apparently endless cycle of poverty into which he had been locked came to an end. He bought a home in Harlem.

After the war, in Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) Hughes broke new ground with verse accented by the discordant nature of the new bebop jazz that reflected a growing desperation in the Black urban communities of the North. The collection included his poem 'Harlem' (see page 9 for the full poem) in which Lorraine Hansberry would find the inspiration and the title for her play A Raisin in the Sun. In 1953 Hughes was forced by Senator Joseph McCarthy to testify officially about his politics. He denied that he had ever been a communist party member but conceded that some of his radical verse had been ill-advised. Within a short time, however, McCarthy himself was discredited and Hughes was free to write at length about his years in the Soviet Union in I Wonder as I Wander (1956), his much-admired second volume of autobiography.

In the 1950s he looked to the musical stage for success: his musical Simply Heavenly (1957) was transferred to Broadway for a respectable run. However, Hughes' Tambourines to Glory (1963), a gospel musical play satirising corruption in a Black storefront church, failed badly, with some critics accusing him of creating caricatures of Black life.

The 1960s saw Hughes as productive as ever. In 1962 his ambitious book-length poem Ask Your Mama, dense with allusions to Black culture and music, appeared. However, the reviews were dismissive. Hughes's work was not as universally acclaimed as before in the Black community. Although he was hailed in 1966 as a historic artistic figure at the First World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, Senegal, he also found himself increasingly rejected by young Black militants at home as the civil rights movement lurched toward Black Power. His last book was the volume of verse, posthumously published, The Panther and the Lash (1967), mainly about civil rights. Langston Hughes died of cancer on May 22, 1967. His residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission. His block of East 127th Street was renamed ‘Langston Hughes Place’.

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