A Universal Renaissance Man
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, to school teacher Carrie (Caroline) Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes. Hughes’ father left his family, and later divorced Carrie moving to Cuba, and then Mexico trying to escape the racism in the United States. Since his mom traveled looking for work, young Langston was being raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston in Lawrence, Kansas. She told him stories of abolitionist and courageous slaves who struggled for their freedom, it was these stories that gave him a great sense of racial pride. After the death of his grandmother in 1912 Langston lived with family friends for awhile, but, eventually he ended up moving back with Carrie who had remarried and was living in Lincoln, Illinois. It was during his school years that He discovered poetry and was elected class poet of his eighth grade class.
After the death of his grandmother young Langston found solace in literature, and once he reunited with his mom and new stepdad he soon found himself being elect poet of his eighth grade class. He received this honor with uncertainty. He is noted as saying, “ I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.” This seemed to be what started his career in literature. Shortly after graduating the family moved to Cleveland, Ohio and Langston entered high school. Langston continued writing during high school, he wrote for the school paper, edited the school yearbook, and began writing short stories, poetry, and plays. His first piece of Jazz poetry, “When Sue Wears Red” was written while he was in high school. Upon graduating from high school in 1920 Langston decided to go to Mexico to be with his father.
Langston had lived with his dad for a brief period in 1919, and the two had a poor relationship. Despite their poor relationship Langston decided to return to Mexico hoping to convince his dad to support his plan to attend Columbia University. It is on the trip to Mexico that thinking of his dad’s disdain for his people that Langston wrote “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” it was published in Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Langston is noted as saying, “I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.” As he crossed the Mississippi River Langston looked out the window and thought of what rivers meant to the black slaves. In the beginning his father had hoped he would attend a university abroad and study engineering, but Langston wanted to be a writer. The two came to a compromise: Langston would study engineering as long as he could attend Columbia. Although he managed to maintain a B+ GPA he left in 1922 because of racial prejudice. It...