Who Was Langston Hughes

Introduction: The African-American poet, writer, playwright, novelist and social activist of the early 20th century Langston Hughes was one of the most important American writers of the Harlem Renaissance. His works are celebrated for their keen insight into the reality of African-American culture, challenging perception and questioning social norms. His writing styles, often influenced by jazz and blues music popular during his lifetime, spoke to racial and class issues. Langston Hughes also moved beyond the socially accepted traditional writing standard at the time to incorporate a new modernist approach to literature.

Poetry: A major component of Langston Hughes’s literary career was poetry. He was well-known for his adept lyricism and visual imagination, and was praised for writing about the hard reality of African-American life. He wrote about the discrimination faced by African-Americans, the injustices of racism, and the pushing for social change. His work focused heavily on themes of self-expression, resilience and cultural pride, as illustrated in his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”. He also often addressed the importance of speaking up in the face of oppression, as seen in his poem “Let America Be America Again”: “O, let America be America again”.

Novels and Plays: Langston Hughes was also a prolific playwright and novelist. His works often explored racial issues and the quest for personal identity within a black community. His first novel was Not Without Laughter (1930), which won him the Harmon Gold Medal in literature and was made into a television movie in 2001. This novel follows a young African American boy as he navigates life in rural Kansas, facing racism and poverty. His second novel, Doctor Martino and Other Stories (1934), exposed the hypocrisy of racism among the middle class and was depicted by reviewers as a “poignant polemic”: one of his most significant works. Other works of note include the play Mulatto (1935), his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), and his novel Tambourines to Glory (1958).

Social Activism: Langston Hughes was passionate about using literature to make social change, particularly in the African-American community. He used his influence to address discrimination, segregation, and injustice. He was a champion of civil rights, social justice, and equality. He also addressed the importance of education, promoting the need for African-American children and adults to gain the knowledge and skills needed to fight for justice. He was a major voice of the Harlem Renaissance and a powerful influence on many African-American writers who followed in his wake.

Legacy: Langston Hughes had an enduring impact on American literature and culture. He empowered generations of African-Americans to write in a style that embraced their culture and spoke to their experience. His works have been analyzed, anthologized, and reinterpreted by scholars and non-scholars alike. He left a lasting legacy of promoting racial and cultural pride, self-expression, and activism. His words and works will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.


US Senate/Posthumous Honor: The United States Senate posthumously honored Langston Hughes in 1999 for his legacy of human rights and his work in poetry, plays, and novels. The Senate Resolution 225 recognized his work as one of the many diverse contributions to American writing, culture, and identity. Additionally, the main street of Meridian, Mississippi was named after him in 2002.

Academy Awards: Langston Hughes was posthumously awarded a special Academy Award in 1999 for his unique contributions to the U.S. film industry. He wrote over a dozen movies throughout his career, including Annie Allen, starring Halle Berry, which was partially adapted from his work. The award is accolade for his work in bringing African-American stories to the screen.

Pulitzer Prize: Langston Hughes was also posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his photograph, The Negro Speaks of Rivers. The photograph symbolizes the strength and endurance of African-Americans throughout history. The image was selected by the judges out of a breathtaking selection of others.

Harlem Homecoming: In 2018, a homecoming was celebrated for Langston Hughes commemorating the centennial of his birth. The celebration was taken place in Harlem at the site of what has been proclaimed Langston Hughes Place. The event involved a number of activities and performances, as well as the dedication of a historic marker that emphasizes Hughes’s importance to the area.

Adaptation of Writings

Radio Play: In 1950, Langston Hughes wrote and produced the play “An Evening of Fictional Narration and Music” for the New York-based CBS affiliate, WNYC. The production was an adaptation of three of his short stories, each one narrating a different African-American experience. This was one of Hughes’s earliest radio plays, and it was well-received by both critics and listeners.

Musical Adaptation: In 2004, the musical adaptation of Langston Hughes’s play Mulatto premiered on Broadway. This play, originally written in 1935, is a love story between two people of different races and explores the complexity of their relationship, as well as the issue of racism in the South. The musical was a successful production and, to this day, the play is studied in classrooms across the nation.

Film Adaptation: An adaptation of Langston Hughes’s novel Not Without Laughter was made into a feature film in 2001. The movie, starring Alfre Woodard, follows the story of an African-American family in rural Kansas and their struggles and triumphs as they navigate life. The film was praised for its accuracy in representation, as the novel is often thought to be the most accurate portrayal of the lives of African-Americans living in rural Kansas in the early 20th century.


Duke Ellington: In 1937, Langston Hughes collaborated with band leader and jazz musician Duke Ellington on a production called “Jump for Joy”. The production featured a collection of short musicals and skits, including a two-person musical focusing on race relations. The musical was performed nearly 200 times and was a successful joint-project between the two artists.

Kurt Weill: In 1947, Langston Hughes and composer Kurt Weill collaborated on the musical Street Scene, which opened in Broadway. It was an adaptation of a play of the same name and explored the physical, mental and political struggles that immigrants faced in the 20th century. This ambitious project was lauded for its harmony of jazz and classical styles.

Lester Young: Langston Hughes collaborated on a number of projects with jazz saxophonist Lester Young. The duo worked together to create a series of songs, including their most famous work, “System”. The song is about America’s racial and economic inequalities, and it drew over 3.3 million views on YouTube. The collaboration between these two great artists was a unique creative effort with the intent to explore racial and cultural issues.


Walt Whitman: Langston Hughes was heavily influenced by American poet Walt Whitman. He cited Whitman as a powerful influence, particularly on his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”. Hughes was strongly inspired by Whitman’s ability to capture the silent battle fought by African-Americans in their quest for equality and justice.

Harlem Renaissance: The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s-1930s was a major influence on Langston Hughes. He was a central figure in the movement and was known to have personally credited it with inspiring his work. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of increased creative output from African-American writers, artists, and musicians, and it allowed Hughes to explore new approaches to literature and express his cultural identity.

Music: Langston Hughes was also heavily influenced by the jazz and blues music of the early 20th century. He was known to have written a number of poems based on music, such as his compositions inspired by Count Basie’s and Duke Ellington’s band music. He was inspired by the rhythms of the music, using them as a basis for his poem structure and meter, as seen in his poem “Montage of a Dream Deferred”: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Impact on Other Writers

James Baldwin: The African-American writer and civil rights advocate James Baldwin was largely influenced by Langston Hughes throughout his career. Hughes’s works gave Baldwin the encouragement he needed to pursue writing with a unique voice and approach his works with a new level of emotional and intellectual complexity. Baldwin was proud to cite Hughes as a primary influence, crediting the poet with inspiring him and engaging him in his writing.

Alice Walker: The African-American novelist, short story writer, and civil rights activist Alice Walker extensively studied and admired Langston Hughes’s works. The two were technically contemporaries as they both explored the African-American experience during the 20th century. She was particularly inspired by Hughes’s ability to capture the subtle nuances of human emotion and apply it to complex philosophical questions.

Toni Morrison: Another highly influential African-American author was Toni Morrison. She was strongly influenced by Langston Hughes and his style of writing. She often credited Hughes with inspiring her to explore the complexities of African-American life, particularly through her novel Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988.

Ralph Ellison: Ralph Ellison was another major figure of the Harlem Renaissance and was greatly influenced by Hughes’s work. He wrote what is considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, Invisible Man, and Hughes’s use of experimental techniques and modernism undoubtedly had an influence on Ellison’s complex and nuanced approach to the subject of African-American identity.

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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