Friday, February 01, 2008

The Birthday Of Langston Hughes

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Langston Hughes, born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His father divorced his mother and moved to Mexico when Hughes was just a baby. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, but after high school he went to Mexico to get to know his father for the first time. He was disgusted when he found that his father was obsessed with money and more racist than most white men Hughes had ever known.

He went to Columbia University for a year, but then he decided that he wanted to learn from the world rather than books. He quit college, hopped a boat to Africa, and as soon as the boat left New York Harbor, he threw all his college books overboard. He took odd jobs on ships and made his way from Africa to France, Holland, Italy, and finally back to the United States.

He got a job working as a busboy in a Washington, D.C., hotel, and one day he left three poems he had written next to the plate of the poet Vachel Lindsey. Lindsey loved them and read them to an audience the very next day. Within a few years, Hughes had published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues (1926).

He got involved in the Harlem Renaissance and started to write poetry influenced by the music he heard in jazz and blues clubs. He said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street... [songs that] had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."

Hughes was one of the first African-American poets to embrace the language of lower-class black Americans. In his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), he said, "[I want to write for] the people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round."

In his poem "Laughers," he made a list of what he called "my people": "Dish-washers, / Elevator boys, / Ladies' maids, / Crap-shooters, / Cooks, / Waiters, / Jazzers, / Nurses of Babies, / Loaders of Ships, /Rounders,/ Number writers, / Comedians in Vaudeville / And band-men in circuses - / Dream-singers all."

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