In Memory …. Langston Hughes


Langston HughesImage result for langston hughes

19021967 , Joplin , MO

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a young child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln that Hughes began writing poetry. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as assistant cook, launderer, and busboy. He also travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D. C. Hughes’s first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, (Knopf, 1926) was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, (Knopf, 1930) won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in his book-length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951). His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

The critic Donald B. Gibson noted in the introduction to Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall, 1973) that Hughes “differed from most of his predecessors among black poets . . . in that he addressed his poetry to the people, specifically to black people. During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read . . . Until the time of his death, he spread his message humorously—though always seriously—to audiences throughout the country, having read his poetry to more people (possibly) than any other American poet.”

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York City. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”

In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, (Simon & Schuster, 1950); Simple Stakes a Claim, (Rinehart, 1957); Simple Takes a Wife, (Simon & Schuster, 1953); and Simple’s Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965). He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography, The Big Sea (Knopf, 1940), and cowrote the play Mule Bone (HarperCollins, 1991) with Zora Neale Hurston.

 


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (Knopf, 1994)
The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (Knopf, 1967)
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (Knopf, 1961)
Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951)
One-Way Ticket (Knopf, 1949)
Fields of Wonder (Knopf, 1947)
Freedom’s Plow (Musette Publishers, 1943)
Shakespeare in Harlem (Knopf, 1942)
The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (Knopf, 1932)
Scottsboro Limited (The Golden Stair Press, 1932)
Dear Lovely Death (Troutbeck Press, 1931)
Fine Clothes to the Jew (Knopf, 1927)
The Weary Blues (Knopf, 1926)

Prose

Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 (Knopf, 2001)
The Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters (Dodd, Mead, 1980)
Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (Hill, 1973)
Simple’s Uncle Sam (Hill and Wang, 1965)
Something in Common and Other Stories (Hill and Wang, 1963)
Tambourines to Glory (John Day, 1958)
Simple Stakes a Claim (Rinehart, 1957)
I Wonder as I Wander (Rinehart, 1956)
Laughing to Keep From Crying (Holt, 1952)
Simple Takes a Wife (Simon & Schuster, 1953)
Simple Speaks His Mind (Simon & Schuster, 1950)
The Ways of White Folks (Knopf, 1934)
Not Without Laughter (Knopf, 1930)

Drama

Collected Works of Langston Hughes, vol. 5: The Plays to 1942: Mulatto to The Sun Do Move (University of Missouri Press, 2000)
The Political Plays of Langston Hughes (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000)
Mule Bone (HarperCollins, 1991)
Five Plays by Langston Hughes (Indiana University Press, 1963)

Poetry in Translation

Cuba Libre (Anderson & Ritchie, 1948)
Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (Indiana University Press, 1957)

Translation

Masters of the Dew (Reynal & Hitchcock, 1947)

Sitting for Justice: Woolworth’s Lunch Counter


On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and politely asked for service. Their request was refused. When asked to leave, they remained in their seats. Their passive resistance and peaceful sit-down demand helped ignite a youth-led movement to challenge racial inequality throughout the South.

Woolworth lunch counter

Woolworth lunch counter

In Greensboro, hundreds of students, civil rights organizations, churches, and members of the community joined in a six-month-long protest. Their commitment ultimately led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter on July 25, 1960.

Greensboro first day

Greensboro first day

Ezell A. Blair, Jr. (now Jibreel Khazan), Franklin E. McCain, Joseph A. McNeil, and David L. Richmond leave the Woolworth store after the first sit-in on February 1, 1960.
(Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)

Woolworth sit-in

Woolworth sit-in

On the second day of the Greensboro sit-in, Joseph A. McNeil and Franklin E. McCain are joined by William Smith and Clarence Henderson at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
(Courtesy of Greensboro News and Record)

Smithsonian National Museum of American History Behring Center

On the evening of December 1, 1955 , Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested


On the evening of December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, an African American, was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black passengers to relinquish seats to white passengers when the bus was full. Blacks also were required to sit at the back of the bus. Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system and led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

I did not get on the bus to get arrested; I got on the bus to go home.

Quiet Strength: the faith, the hope, and the heart of a woman who changed a nation. Reflections by Rosa Parks with Gregory J. Reed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994. p23.

Woman Fingerprinted. Mrs. Rosa Parks, Negro Seamstress, whose Refusal to Move to the Back of a Bus Touched off the Bus Boycott in Montgomery, Ala. Associated Press, [Feb. 22,] 1956. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Rosa Parks: “Why do you push us around?” Officer: “I don’t know but the law is the law and you’re under arrest.”

Quiet Strength: the faith, the hope, and the heart of a woman who changed a nation. Reflections by Rosa Parks with Gregory J. Reed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1994. p23.

Rosa McCauley was born on February 4, 1913, in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1932, she married Raymond Parks and with his encouragement earned a high school diploma. The couple was active in the Montgomery Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) External. While working as a seamstress, Mrs. Parks served as chapter secretary and, for a time, as advisor to the NAACP Youth Council. Denied the right to vote on at least two occasions because of her race, Rosa Parks also worked with the Voters League in preparing blacks to register.

We Shall Overcome.” Silphia Horton, Frank Hamilton, Guy Carawan, and Pete Seeger; New York: Ludlow Music, Inc., 1963. [Courtesy: Ludlow Music, Inc., 11 West 19th Street New York, NY 10011.] The Civil Rights Era. In The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Music Division Probably first used in 1945 by striking South Carolina tobacco workers, “We Shall Overcome” became the anthem of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The protest song’s first separate publication, shown above, credits Silphia Horton of the Highlander Folk School with shared authorship.

Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the NAACP choose Rosa Parks to attend a desegregation workshop at the Highlander Folk School External in Monteagle, Tennessee. Reflecting on that experience, Parks recalled, “At Highlander I found out for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society…I gained there the strength to persevere in my work for freedom not just for blacks, but for all oppressed people.”

Although her arrest was not planned, Park’s action was consistent with the NAACP’s desire to challenge segregated public transport in the courts. A one-day bus boycott coinciding with Parks’s December 5 court date resulted in an overwhelming African-American boycott of the bus system. Since black people constituted seventy percent of the transit system’s riders, most busses carried few passengers that day.

5,000 at Meeting Outline Boycott; Bullet Clips Bus. Montgomery, Alabama, Bus Boycott. Montgomery Advertiser, December 6, 1955. [Courtesy: Montgomery Advertiser. Copyprint from microfilm.] The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Serial & Government Publications Division

The success of the boycott mandated sustained action. Religious and political leaders met at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (later the Southern Christian Leadership Conference). Dexter’s new pastor, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., was appointed the group’s leader. For the next year, the Montgomery Improvement Association coordinated the bus boycott and King, an eloquent young preacher, inspired those who refused to ride:

If we are wrong—the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong—God almighty is wrong! If we are wrong—Jesus of Nazareth was merely a utopian dreamer and never came down to earth. If we are wrong—justice is a lie. And we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.” 1

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.

During the boycott, King insisted that protestors retain the moral high ground, hinting at his later strategy of nonviolent resistance.

This is not a war between the white and the Negro but a conflict between justice and injustice. If we are arrested every day, if we are exploited every day, if we are trampled over every day, don’t ever let anyone pull you so low as to hate them. We must use the weapon of love. 2

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Montgomery, Alabama, 1955.

In December 1956 the Supreme Court banned segregation on public transportation and the boycott ended over a year after it had begun. Rosa and Raymond Parks moved to Detroit where, for more than twenty years, the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” worked for Congressman John Conyers. In addition to the Rosa Parks Peace Prize (Stockholm, 1994) and the U.S. Medal of Freedom (1996), Rosa Parks has been awarded two-dozen honorary doctorates from universities around the world.

Rosa Parks died on October 24, 2005, at the age of ninety-two, at her home in Detroit, Michigan. On October 30, 2005, Parks became the first woman to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. ed. Clayborne Carson (New York: Intellectual Properties Management in Association with Warner Books: 1998), 60. (Return to text)
  2. King 1998, 81. (Return to text)

loc.gov