A gentle and mild-mannered soul who spent much of his life at the center of controversy, a gregarious spirit who was also zealously private, a writer of social conscience and solidarity who was fundamentally alone, Langston Hughes
devoted his art to the true expression of the lives, hopes, fears, and angers of ordinary black people, without self-consciousness or sugar-coating. And this devotion has been repaid with an extraordinary and continuing popularity, as well as with a still-increasing critical acceptance of the literary artistry with which it was conveyed.
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to James Nathaniel Hughes, a lawyer and businessman, and Carrie Mercer (Langston) Hughes, a teacher. Their first child, a boy, had died in infancy. Their marriage was in trouble by the time of Langston's birth, and the couple separated shortly thereafter. James Hughes was, by his son's account, a cold man who hated blacks (and hated himself for being one), feeling that most of them deserved their ill fortune because of what he considered to be their ignorance and laziness. He went to Cuba and ultimately settled in Mexico. Langston's youthful visits to him there, although sometimes for extended periods, were strained and painful. James Hughes reluctantly paid for his son to attend Columbia University in 1921-22, but when he died in 1934, he left everything to three elderly women who had cared for him in his last illness, and Langston wasn't even mentioned in his will.
Hughes's mother went through protracted separations and reconciliations in her second marriage (she and her son from this marriage would live with him off and on in later years, often seriously depleting his limited funds, until her death in 1938). He was raised by alternately by her, by his maternal grandmother, and, after his grandmother's death, by family friends. By the time he was fourteen, he had lived in Joplin; Buffalo; Cleveland; Lawrence, Kansas; Mexico City; Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs; Kansas City; and Lincoln, Illinois. In 1915, he was class poet of his grammar-school graduating class in Lincoln. From 1916 to 1920, he attended Central High School in Cleveland, where he was a star athlete, wrote poetry and short stories (and published many of them in the Central High Monthly), and on his own read such modern poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. Hi...