What Inspired Langston Hughes


Langston Hughes was an African-American poet, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and columnist who is arguably one of the most widely read and widely acclaimed of the Harlem Renaissance literary figures. Born in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes wrote not just poems, but plays, short stories, and novels, working in a breadth of genres, exploring topics from African-American identity to the jazz rhythms of the era. His work was mainly inspired by his African-American roots, religion, racial injustice, and the blues. Through his writings, Hughes conveyed messages of self-love and solidarity amongst African-Americans and sought to promote their identity.

Education and Upbringing

Hughes was born on 1st February 1902 and spent his childhood in Kansas and Illinois. Having been surrounded by books and literature, he had a passion for reading and writing from a young age. His father, James Hughes, was an entrepreneur in terms of legal matters, while his mother, Carrie Langston, was a school teacher. Both his parents were of mixed African, European and Native American ancestry. In 1914, their household was divided when his father left his mother and moved to Mexico.
His mother took in different jobs to sustain the household, which left Hughes and his siblings in the care of various family members. During summers, Hughes would spend time with his father in Mexico working on railroad construction. This experience of witnessing the divide between the classes, surrounding economic social justice, reinforced his beliefs and he would later refer to it in his writings.

Literary Influences

One of the first influences of Hughes’ writings was what later became known as the literary realism. This movement’s authors sought to realistically portray the lives of regular people, the struggle and joys of the lower classes, and their relations with each other and their surroundings. Authors such as Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston’s work made an impact on Hughes at an early age.
The movement of Modernism, which caused a temporal rift from the long-held traditions of the 19th century, influenced Hughes’ as well. His approach to poetry and structural brevity, more easily signified by his later-chronological works, was inspired by the revolutionary break of convention that this era of literature caused. Not only was he shaped by the poem’s content, but also its form.

In-depth Analysis of Hughes’ Writings

Hughes’ poetry and literature have been commended for providing an extensive description of the African-American experience. In his poem ‘The Negro Speaks of Rivers’, Hughes drew on inspirations from the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Babylon, and Assyria to express his exquisite reverence for the traditional African-American way of life. Here, the form and content of the poem emphasise the durability of African-American culture, implying that the struggles faced at the time were merely a continuation in the timeline of oppression faced by African-Americans.
Through Hughes’ other works, such as ‘Dreams’ and ‘I Too’, his writing conveys a positive spirit and message of hope. In ‘Dreams’, Hughes sees life from a realistic viewpoint, understanding that one must individualize one’s life rather than conform to society’s expectations. This poem portrays an eternal goal that is evidently evident in all of Hughes’ writing; the wish to remove racial injustice and discrimination against the African-American people.
Moreover, ‘I Too’ is a theme of “turning loneliness into togetherness” as mentioned in her 2001 Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Hughes, who advocates feelings of self-worth and acceptance amongst African-Americans, is intimately familiar with the issue of segregation. This poem, as well as his other works, alludes to the shared struggle of African-American’s and their communal need for liberation.

Harlem Renaissance and Notable Works

Throughout the early 20th century, the Renaissance took part in observing and using art and literature to questions surrounding African-American identity. As the Renaissance influenced Hughes, he too influenced the Renaissance. His contributions as an African-American writer emphasised the importance of this period in understanding the importance of the African-American identity.
Some of his most notable works are Montage of A Dream Deferred, The Weary Blues, and a compilation of poetic work titled The Dream Keeper. His novel titled Not without Laughter is often referred to and examined as the greatest work of fiction. In this novel, Hughes highlights the relationship and bond between parents, children, the community and their way of life.

Religion and Social Justice

Religion is a recurring theme through Hughes’ works, seeking to highlight the role of religion in African-American life. He recognises the importance of the spiritual experience and its relationship to the African-American identity. This is evident in his works ‘The Negro Mother’ and ‘Mother to Son’. Here, Hughes introduces themes of “Following the Lord”, and “walking with God”.
The fight for socio-political rights was also heavily apparent throughout Hughes’ works, especially in his play ‘Parade’. Here, he focuses on and recognises the role of the aforementioned religion in providing a sense of social justice, solidarity, and liberation. The play shines a light on faith, the oppression of poverty and the role of religion.

Posthumous Influence

After dying in 1967, Hughes’ literary pieces have been established as some of the most important works of the 20th century. Today, his impact is still commendable; inspiring African-American literature, asserting a sense of self-love, and inviting dialogue in the fight for social justice. Through his works, Langston Hughes was an advocate for the African-American experience and culture, helping to foster pride and strengthen the civil rights movement.

Political Activism and Works

In addition to his literary works, Hughes was a strong advocate for social equality and civil rights. He attended the 1937 World Peace Conference in London and was among those who spoke up against Hitler’s campaign against the Jewish people. Later, he was an active supporter of muralist Diego Rivera and the Mexican Mural Movement. Hughes was also an outward advocate against racial segregation, and stood alongside Paul Robeson and others at the militant anti-lynching march on Washington in 1935.
His journalistic works included “Only One America” and “A New Deal for the Negro”, where his commentaries expose US racism and its effects on African Americans. He called for the social and economical equality of African Americans, calling for the need of equal wages and living arrangements. Hughes even discussed the Jim Crow laws during the period and its effect on the average African-American.

Conclusion & Legacy

Langston Hughes is one of the most notable figures in African-American literature and culture. His works were incredibly influential, as he sought to create a sense of racial pride and encourage dialogue around civil rights and social justice. As one of the most prominent voices of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes became a symbol and a hero amongst African-Americans, using his writings to convey their stories and experiences. His life and works continue to be celebrated and honoured, as a lasting legacy for Hughes and for the African-American community.

Dannah Hannah is an established poet and author who loves to write about the beauty and power of poetry. She has published several collections of her own works, as well as articles and reviews on poets she admires. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English, with a specialization in poetics, from the University of Toronto. Hannah was also a panelist for the 2017 Futurepoem book Poetry + Social Justice, which aimed to bring attention to activism through poetry. She lives in Toronto, Canada, where she continues to write and explore the depths of poetry and its influence on our lives.

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