Langston Hughes wasn’t just a famous Black poet, novelist, playwright, and reporter who helped define New York City’s Harlem Renaissance—he was also an activist that reflected the multifaceted lives of the Black community. Often called “The People’s Poet,” he had an uncanny talent for depicting Black joy, sorrow, struggles, and victories in his writing.
Born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902 (or 1901, as recent evidence suggests), Hughes was raised in Lawrence, Kansas, by his grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston. An educator and abolitionist, she taught him the importance of loving himself despite society’s racism; as a result, Hughes never stopped fighting for systemic change and figuring out how he could use his gifts to create a more equitable world. Here are eight things you should know about Langston Hughes.
1. Langston Hughes was a teenager when he wrote one of his most popular poems.
Langston Hughes was just 17 when he wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” one of his most recognizable poems. It was published the following year in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, a magazine founded by W.E.B. Du Bois as the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In May 1941, Hughes wrote Du Bois a heartfelt thank-you letter in honor of the 20th anniversary of his first poem being published.
2. He originally went to school for engineering.
Before Hughes’s poetry career took off, he was an engineering student at Columbia University in New York City. He attended the School of Mines, Engineering, and Chemistry in 1921 after his father convinced him to choose a stable career. While Hughes performed well in school and maintained a B+ average, he dropped out after only spending a year in the program. He later switched universities and majors to study English at Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania.
3. Hughes came from a family of activists.
Hughes came from an impressive lineage of abolitionists and activists. His maternal grandfather, Charles Henry Langston, advocated for equal rights, education, and suffrage in Ohio and Kansas for 30 years [PDF]. Hughes’s great-uncle, John Mercer Langston, was also an abolitionist, as well as an attorney, politician, and diplomat who was one of the first Black men in the United States elected to public office when he was voted as township clerk of Brownhelm, Ohio, in 1855. Later, he became the first Black man elected to Congress from Virginia, where he served during the 51st Congress from 1889 to 1891.
4. He was a pioneer of jazz poetry.
In 1958, Hughes recited his poem “The Weary Blues” on Canada’s The 7 O'Clock Show with jazz accompaniment from the Doug Parker Band. “The Weary Blues” was originally published in Opportunity, a magazine founded by the National Urban League, and ended up winning the prize for best poem of the year in 1925 when Hughes was about 24 years old.
It was one of the many poems he wrote that used a rhythm similar to that of jazz music. Hughes’s jazz poetry—a style he pioneered—reflected the Black experience in many ways, and he'd later say, “[Jazz] to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”
5. Hughes went to the Soviet Union to make a movie about being Black in America.
Hughes and 21 other Black creatives traveled to the Soviet Union in 1932 to take part in a film about Black life in the American South called Black and White. Activist Louise Thompson—a longtime friend of Hughes—put the cast together and envisioned the project as being a more honest portrayal of Black hardship than what Hollywood was capable of at the time.
The whole project soon fell apart, with some of the Black talent involved claiming that the Soviets axed the film in order to “curry favor with Washington,” according to The New York Times. Still, Hughes blamed the whole thing on simple creative differences, later writing of the issue: “O, Movies. Temperaments. Artists. Ambitions. Scenarios. Directors, producers, advisers, actors, censors, changes, revisions, conferences. It’s a complicated art—the cinema. I’m glad I write poems.”
6. He was also a reporter.
While most people know Hughes for his work as a poet, he was also a reporter for 20 years, mostly writing for the Chicago Defender, a long-running Black news outlet that started up in 1905. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. During this time, he covered the Black Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain on the side of the leftist Republican government as part of the International Brigades. (Of those volunteer troops, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade included Black commanders leading integrated troops.) In addition to the articles, Hughes wrote two poems called “Postcard from Spain” and “Letter from Spain” during his time covering the war.
7. He had a friendship—and then a falling out—with Zora Neale Hurston.
In 1925, Hughes met and befriended another central literary figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston. The celebrated writer and folklorist was attending Columbia University as a graduate student at the time, and the pair later embarked on a tour of the Deep South together in 1927.
While the two had plenty of things in common—including a shared patron, Charlotte Osgood Mason, who was a white socialite living in Manhattan—they eventually had a falling out in 1931, after working together on Mule Bone, a play based off Hurston’s short story, “The Bone of Contention.” Reportedly, Hughes tried to produce a version of it on stage in Pennsylvania without Hurston. Ultimately, the rift was never fully mended, and they remained estranged for years.
8. Hughes’s poems are still appearing in the media today.
Langston Hughes’s work continues to inspire artists in all kinds of media today. American cartoonist Stephen Bentley, creator of the Herb & Jamal comic, included Hughes’s poem “Acceptance” in the comic's March 4, 2010 strip and “Still here” in the March 27, 2010 strip. Award-winning illustrator Afua Richardson, who’s worked for Marvel, DC, and Image, also created comic book panels based on the poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” for NPR in 2014. She then used the illustrated panels to create a video that includes her original artwork with an audio reading of the poem.
The recent Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reboot on Peacock also pays homage to Hughes, using his 100-year-old poem, “Mother to Son” in a trailer for the dramatized version of the sitcom. The 1922 poem is read by April Parker Jones (Supergirl), who plays Will’s (Jabari Banks) mom. The poem signifies the darker tone of the 2022 series and how it delves into the devastation of class divide within the Black community and Black life in an anti-Black America.
A version of this article was originally published in 2022 and has been updated for 2023.