Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His father, who had studied to become a lawyer, left for Mexico shortly after the baby was born. When Langston was seven or eight he went to live with his grandmother, who told him wonderful stories about Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and took him to hear Booker T. Washington. She also introduced him to The Crisis, edited by W. E. B. Du Bois, who also wrote The Souls of Black Folk, young Langston”s favorite book. After his grandmother died when he was twelve, Langston went to live with her friends, whom he called Auntie and Uncle Reed.
Then, at age fourteen, his mother married again, and soon he accompanied his new family to Illinois and then to Cleveland, where Homer Clarke, his mother”s new husband, had found work in a steel mill. As a high school student at Central High in Cleveland, Langston read the works of many black writers. After graduation, he went to Mexico to visit his father, who agreed to pay for his college education. On his way through the south, as he was crossing the Mississippi River, Langston wrote The Negro Speaks of Rivers. It was printed in The Crisis in 1921.
Langston entered Columbia University and began living in Harlem, at that time an elegant section on the northern end of Manhattan Island that black people were making their own. The sights and sounds of Harlem, its music and dance and intellectual life, inspired Langston more than his classes in mining engineering, and eventually he quit school. Meanwhile he sent more poems to The Crisis. Having difficulty finding work, Hughes, twenty-one years old, joined the crew of a ship sailing for Africa. Eventually he traveled through Italy, Holland, Spain, and France, writing all the while.
Finally he returned to New York, and felt as though he had returned home. An outburst of literary activity followed. Hughes”s poetry absorbed the rhythms of blues and jazz and the dialect of African American speech that he heard around him. He continued to write and publish in The Crisis. He met poet Vachel Lindsay, who liked his poems and promoted them. In 1926 Hughes published his first book of poems, The Weary Blues, about Harlem life. Hughes continued writing through the 1930s and the 1940s, speaking for the poor and homeless black people who suffered during the Great Depression.
He wrote of their daily lives in America”s cities, of their anger and their loves. Black people loved reading his works and hearing him read his poems at public presentations all over the country. To them he was Harlem”s Poet. When Hughes died in 1967, a jazz band played at his funeral. The Harlem that Hughes loved and where he lived most of his life was an exciting place. This newly developed suburb of New York City was planned, laid out, and built almost too fast; the bottom dropped out of the real estate market in 1904-1905.
Harlem had broad boulevards, beautiful town houses, and exclusive apartment buildingsâ€”but no residents. Desperate to rent to anyone, many developers began to open Harlem to blacks, and by 1914 Harlem was a black city. Its population almost exploded during the years of the First World War as blacks from the South moved north in search of better jobs and fuller citizenship–the beginning of what came to be known as the Great Migration. At the same time, because it was a port city, New York attracted a large influx of blacks from the West Indies and even Africa.
Meanwhile blacks enlisted in the armed forces in record numbers and distinguished themselves on the battlefield in Europe. They also took the sounds of ragtime and jazz to England and France, and caused a sensation. After the war the combination of the Great Migration, the mix of cultures in Harlem, and a newfound sense of black unity and confidence produced a great burst of creativity. The black writer, educator, and intellectual Alain Locke described a new sense of Negro identity:
Here in Manhattan is not merely the largest Negro community in the world, but the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of Negro life. . . In Harlem, Negro life is seizing upon its first chances for group expression and self-determination. It is–or promises at least to be–a race capital. During the Harlem Renaissance, intellectual dialogue, literary and artistic creation, blues and jazz, dance and musical theater came together and flowered as never before. There were active offices of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
There were all black musicals, dance clubs, jazz clubs, and nightclubs that catered to whites. The leaders and stars are still known today: in intellectual discourse and book and magazine publishing, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Alain Locke; in music and dance, Bill Bojangles Robinson, Ethel Waters, and Duke Ellington; sculptors and painters Meta Warrick Fuller, Aaron Douglas, Palmer Hayden, and Augusta Savage; novelists Jessie Fauset and Zora Neale Hurston; and poets James Weldon Johnson, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and of course, Langston Hughes.
Ultimately, the Depression, unemployment, poverty, gang violence, and most of all segregation–not legal segregation but the continuing inequality between whites and blacks–changed Harlem in the 1930s, and it became a sad and dangerous place. Despite so many brilliant accomplishments, there was no fundamental change in the comparative position of the two races. Langston Hughes explained it this way: The depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negro had but few pegs to fall.