Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was one of the most beloved and celebrated poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his many contributions, Hughes helped to "define the spirit of the age" by underscoring the connections among multiple expressive forms--namely poetry's kinship to jazz--of the era. As our text explains, Hughes's autobiography, The Big Sea offers a rare, first-hand account of the scenes, sights, and happenings of one of the most important eras in African American literary--and cultural--history (Gates et al. 1289). Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes hailed from an illustrious family line: as Gates points out, Hughes was the grandson of a prominent Kansas politician; and his brother, John Mercer Langston, was, among other things, "founding dean of the law school" at Howard. Despite his auspicious family tree, Langston grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, in virtual poverty.
In the years that followed, Hughes worked a number of odd jobs that included delivery boy, produce farmer, busboy, and crewman on a merchant steamer--a job that enabled him to visit much of Europe and Africa. Throughout all of his various posts, Hughes continued to polish his poetry, and in 1921, published his first, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," in The Crisis. Later, his jazz-inspired poem, "The Weary Blues," won first prize in Opportunity magazine's literary contest. Hughes looked to a number of poetic sources as inspiration, from Carl Sandburg and Claude McKay, to James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. DuBois. Mostly, Hughes discovered his creative influence to be the radical and experimental forms of jazz and blues.
As you read Hughes' poems, keep in mind some of the major themes the poet engaged. These include: Poems that expressed the diversity of African American experiences The role of art in everyday life and experience Artistic expression as African American 'salvation' The mission of the black artist at the beginning of the 20th century* Black urban folk wisdom *Keep these things in mind when reading his essay, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"--the essay that Hughes wrote in response to George Schuyler's "Negro Art Hoakum." How does Hughes define the African American poet, his work, and his purpose? What, according to Hughes, is the duty of the 'young Negro artist'?