James Langston Hughes Biography English Literature Essay

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Hughes was elected class poet while in 8th grade. In 1918, he published his early poems and short stories in Central High School's monthly magazine. After graduating from "Central High as class poet and editor of the school annual" he moved to Mexico and lived with his father. In 1921, he published "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in Crisis magazine. His father sponsored him and enrolled Hughes in Columbia University in New York. Unfortunately, he was unhappy and dropped out and broke ties with his father. He sailed to Western Africa and visited Senegal, the Gold Coast, Nigeria, the Congo and other countries. In 1925, he lived in Washington. "His poem "the Weary Blues" won first prize in a contest sponsored by Opportunity magazine." This led to a book deal with Knopf. A year later, his first book "The Weary Blues" was published.

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He enrolled at Lincoln University, a historically black university. In June of that year, the Nation weekly magazine published his landmark essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." Hughes graduated in 1929 from Lincoln University. In 1931, he traveled to Haiti where he published some of his work in the communist magazine New Masses. He then returned to the States and toured the Southern States bringing his poetry to his people. He also visited some of the Scottsboro boys in an Alabama prison.

In 1932, he traveled to Russia with a group of "young African Americans to make a film about race relations in the United States." However, the film fell through and was not completed. He lived in Russia for two years and wrote his most radical verse "Good Morning Revolution" and "Goodbye Christ."

After returning to the States in 1935, his play "Mulatto" was turned into a Broadway production. Hughes was furious and clashed with the producer because he made several unauthorized changes to the script. Unhappy, he wrote "Let America Be America Again." He continued writing plays and in 1938 founded the radical Harlem Suitcase Theater in New York. His first play "Do You Want to Be Free?" was staged.

In 1940, his autobiography "The Big Sea" was published. Hughes was picketed by a religious group over his radical poem "Goodbye Christ" because it mocked religion and the priests that oversaw and allegedly accused them of exploiting Christ for their personal gain.

In 1944, the FBI started to investigate him over his former radicalism. In 1948, he was mistakenly denounced as a communist by the United States Senate. "In March of 1953," Hughes was "forced to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy's subcommittee on subversive activities, Hughes is exonerated after repudiating his past radicalism."

In 1961, he was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters. A year later, he began writing a weekly column for the New York Post. He also wrote and published "Fight for Freedom: the Story of the NAACP" which was commissioned by the organization. His musical play "Jericho-Jim Crow" was staged in Greenville Village. It was a tribute to the civil rights movement.

On May 22, 1967, Hughes dies at New York Polyclinic Hospital following prostate surgery. Later that year, his two final literary works were published "The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Time" (Knopf) and "Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment" (Prentice Hall).

Literary scholars have criticized his work over the years. They criticized his use of "controversial" words to send a message of position against bigotry and injustice. According to Calvin Hernton's critical essay, Hughes's poem "Blue Bayou" is more than what would be considered as a protest poem. "Blue Bayou" is a folk-work-song, ballad-blues-spiritual of the black southern peasantry."

Hernton further explains that Hughes shows the reality of blacks in the south at the time. Langston Hughes was direct with his poetry and made declarative statements. Hernton disagrees with other critics who have unfairly labeled Hughes work like "Blue Bayou" as protest poems.

One of his first poems was "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" which was his description of all the dreaded places where slaves were sold off. Hughes associated black life with the great rivers of Africa, North America, the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi. Hernton uses Hughes poem "Negro" as an example.

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Hernton felt that Hughes made it clear in his work that "the African Americans were entitled to and sought the American dream" just like everyone else. Hernton used two of Hughes's poems ("Freedom Train" and "I, Too) to demonstrate this theory.

Matt Longabucco in his critical essay stated that "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" came at a perfect time. The Harlem Renaissance of African American music and arts rose and centered itself on Harlem and jazz. This was the result of the increase in African American migration from the Jim Crow South to the North.

It created an influx of white enthusiasts who flooded the nightclubs in Harlem and paid attention to black literature. Unfortunately, it cause prejudices as some artists had to portray African Americans in a stereotypical mode that white audiences expected. Langston Hughes took advantage and through his words portrayed his people as they truly are and continued to do so throughout his life.

According to James de Jongh, Hughes scribbled "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" on an envelope while sitting in a train heading to Mexico to spend another summer with his father. De Jongh focused his writing on Hughes's literary use of place. He points out that "Hughes claimed … encompassing "downriver," the term for all the dreaded places in the lower South to which slaves were sold off, "the riverside" one of the relative safe havens and sites of resistance within the domain of the plantation itself and "over Jordan," the beckoning frontier of freedom visible from inside the bounds of enslavement and exile." he further stated that Hughes was "fundamentally a poet, a prolific writer who turned his talents with greater or lesser success to a multiplicity of other genres over time but on whose vocation (his calling as an artist) was poetry." De Jongh went on to state that Hughes's work was perceived with clarity and coherence of his view of himself as an African American citizen-poet. De Jongh goes on to discuss "I, Too". in this poem, Hughes identifies himself with the American poet, Walt Whitman, and claimed to be the role and voice of America.

Arnold Rampersad describes Hughes as "a black writer facing racism on a daily basis, he had a remarkably precise sense of scale, as well as an inspired knowledge of the words and rhythms of speech that would best convey his messages to blacks and whites alike." He further indicated that the key aspect of Hughes's work was political protest. He was brief and to the point.

The works mentioned are only a very small percentage of his inspirational and radical works. He continues to influence his people and provide the motivation to move forward towards equality. He was not afraid to express his radical views. To obtain the attention of the NAACP and the federal government clearly shows that he had and continues to influence those around him even after his death. In his own words, he stated "A poet is a human being. Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country. Hang yourself, poet, in your own words. Otherwise, you are dead."