Born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri, 1902. Hughes spent much of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas living with his grandmother until her death in his twelfth year and then his aunt and uncle. Langston left Kansas at the age of fourteen when his mother re-married and went to live with his mother and stepfather, first in illinois and later in Cleveland, Ohio. Although selected as class poet by his eight grade class in Kansas, it was during his high school years in Ohio, Hughes first began writing poems on a regular basis. Hughes also began reading a wide variety of authors and was especially impressed with the work of Carl Sandburg. Hughes was active in school and was the Editor of his High School's yearbook.

After high school graduation, Langston went to live with his father in mexico, where he was briefly employed as an english teacher. Langston and his father did not get along well, however, his father agreed to pay for his college education and Langston was enrolled at Columbia University. During the train ride to New York (which was segrated through the american south), Hughes wrote A Negro Speaks of Rivers, which was published in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1921.

Hughes immensely enjoyed the theater, culture and parties he found in Harlem; but was not fond of his academic studies. Eventually, Hughes dropped out of Columbia and signed on as a cabin-boy on a ship bound for Africa. In Paris, Hughes jumped ship and lived in a garret for a brief time with a russian ballerina. He continued to write and submit poetry to The Crisis. In Paris, Hughes worked as a waiter in a popular jazz club and met many american celebrities of the age.

Hughes traveled all over europe, before ending up destitute in Italy, where (by his own account) he asked the NAACP for monetary assistance so he could return to the United States. Hughes returned to New York with the Harlem Rennaissance in High swing, and loved every moment of it. During this time period he made friends with many important writers of the age including Countee Cullen, Carl Van Vechten and Zora Neale Hurston (although Hughes eventually had a violent falling out with Thurston over their collaboration on the play, Mule Bone). It was also during this time period that Hughes slipped a few poems to Vachel Lindsay who was impressed and promoted the young poet. In 1926, Hughes' first book of poetry was published by Alfred A. Knopf and Hughes was quickly at the forefront of the literary talent associated with the Harlem Rennaissance. Hughes continued to write poems and essays for a variety of publications, including several leftist publications (his communist leanings were never mentioned in his autobiography and disavowed during the house committee on unamerican activities hearings).

Hughes was briefly sponsored by a wealthy patroness who was interest in "primitive", however she and Hughes had a falling out over the direction of his works and they parted ways. Hughes returned to college at Lincoln University and received a grant to write his first novel, Not Without Laughter, which was published in 1930.

Hughes was a prolific writer, and before his death of cancer in 1967 wrote sixteen books of poetry (including the groundbreaking book length poem Montage of a Dream Deferred), two novels, three collections of short stories, twenty plays, serveral musicals and an Opera and dozens of essays on various subjects.

Information taken fromThe Big Sea by Langston Hughes and The Life of Langston Hughes by Arnold Rampersad.

This is a paper I wrote for an English class. We were supposed to explicate a single poem but once I started...

Black Musical Forms in the Poetry of Langston Hughes

The poetry of Langston Hughes is almost universally lauded (with the singular exception of his own contemporary Countee Cullen) for its insights into the minds and lives of black people. One of themes that runs continuously through his work is the references to musical forms associated with black culture. Although Hughes often uses the voices of characters in his poems to relate the African American experience his most eloquent and powerful voice is delivered in blues and jazz themes.

One of the most familiar forms of African American song is the spiritual. Spirituals are most often associated with the image of slaves toiling in the fields, singing to alleviate the hopelessness of their social position with powerful affirmations in their faith, religious and otherwise. The general theme of the spiritual is that present life may be difficult but eventually things will get better. This was often expressed as the "pie in the sky" concept of reward in the afterlife. In the case of Langston Hughes many of his poems, modeled after spirituals, expressed the same sentiments. They decried the current condition of the African American while expressing (albeit with extraordinary subtlety at times) optimism for what the future held.

The poem "Mother to Son" is a good example of this theme. In conversation with her son a mother laments the difficult times in her life using a metaphor of climbing flights of stairs. Her description of the ascent begins with a description of the difficulties.

"Tacks ..., splinters, ..., and boards torn up" is her bleak evaluation of the beginning of her struggle. But, as in the spiritual form, she struggles through her hardships ("a-climbin' on") and despite her difficulties remains stubbornly at her task. Again and again she utters the line,"Life for me ain't been no crystal stair," emphasizing the difficulty of her voyage through life. The mother is trying to set an example for her son to persevere and overcome hardship. Much like a spiritual, we imagine that the end to the struggles of the mother will come with her ascent to the "crystal stair" of Heaven. Hughes constructs his own spiritual theme with the hard lessons learned by the mother used to instruct and encourage her son to not give up.

Blues music seems a logical extension of the spiritual form with an emphasis on articulation and cathartic release of the laments of harshly treated African Americans. Although the lyrical content of blues music usually focuses on painful events or spiritual anguish it is often paired or contrasted with wry humor and playfulness in language perhaps to transform human suffering into something to inspire or uplift the listener as well as the speaker. Langston Hughes explores this idea of release in "The Weary Blues." His blues player "...made that poor piano moan with melody" transferring his weariness with the world to the piano and clears his mind by "put {ing} ma troubles on the shelf." At the end of the poem Hughes' blues singer has exorcised his demons for another day and goes to sleep " a rock or a man that's dead."

Of course not all blues songs end in quiet resignation. "Song for a Dark Girl" is another blues based poem that ends and tragedy and despair. The lynching portrayed in this poem leaves Hughes little room for optimism or closure. The sight of his lover's "bruised body" hung from a tree forces a cry of agony from him and cause him to petition the "white Lord Jesus" about the futility of praying to him. Hughes repeatedly juxtaposes the image of the deep South with a broken heart and by the end of the poem has lost his faith in love (it being "a naked shadow on a gnarled and naked tree") altogether. He uses futility, disillusionment, and cold finality to attack lynching and the image of the grand old South.

"Red Silk Stockings" is another blues poem lacking a happy ending. Instead of using the bleak and crushing imagery of a lynching he speaks in this poem about prostitution. This poem is very thematically complex and creates a multi-layered criticism of prostitution, pimping, and the power dynamics of race relations in very few and somewhat ambiguous words. The narrator of this poem is presumably a pimp speaking to a black prostitute about strategies for attracting white clients. The pimp references "white boys" and "high yaller" which is a term for white/African American racial bicomposition. While Hughes uses the pimp's voice to criticize the motivations of the prostitute he also empathizes with her position by noting that "ain't nothin' to do for you, nohow, round this town." The narrator expresses no approval but admits that this distasteful route is one way of an otherwise impossible situation.

Hughes also employs the jazz form in his poetry which is a more optimistic and celebratory voice than the ones adopted for the spiritual and blues poems. This tone runs parallel to the development of jazz as a distinctly African American musical form that is not focused on lament but on liberation from traditionally (possibly oppressive) rigid musical disciplines. Jazz was a radical break from more restrictive forms that allowed African Americans to freely express themselves musically. Hughes expresses that sense of liberation from restrictive, traditional poetic forms.

In "Lenox Avenue: Midnight" Hughes asserts that "the rhythm of life is a jazz rhythm," and continues his poem to reflect that by free associating scenes from Lenox Avenue and his own thoughts and reflections about the inner workings of the human heart. For Hughes the rhythms of jazz are life affirming and reflected in the motions of people and objects around him. He relates the "broken heart of love" to the "rumble of street cars" and "the swish of rain" outlining the ties of jazz to the abstract and concrete elements of his life as a black American.

His incorporation of jazz elements in his poetry drew criticism from at least one contemporary in his own community. Countee Cullen expressed dismay at what he thought was limited writing in that it voiced the experience of black people instead of addressing some hallucinatory universal human experience. Hughes replies to those sentiments in his poem "Formula." By pairing a traditional poetic form complete with a linear rhyme scheme and physical structure and truisms about the real nature of things that lies beneath the "lofty" veneer applied by poets of the traditional bent Hughes deftly addresses his critics, parodies the orthodox school of poetics, and makes a cutting statement about the difference between high art and the real world.

Hughes used many different voices throughout his prolific career as a poet and a prose writer. By incorporating elements of spirituals, blues, jazz, and, in his later work, protest songs he was able to create a lucid and descriptive picture of his life as a black man. What is important about this creation (as much as the writing itself) is that he did it not by creating fragile ice swans in the concert halls of Vienna but by utilizing the language of his own people to communicate with his own community and the world.

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