Mini Page Heroes: Langston Hughes

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - NEWS -

You never know when some­one else’s words may change your life. That’s what hap­pened to a young poet, Langston Hughes.

Dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion, Hughes and a friend went to Day­tona, Florida, to meet the fa­mous African-Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tor Mary McLeod Bethune. (The Mini Page fea­tured Bethune in a July is­sue.) Bethune sug­gested that Hughes travel through­out the South, read­ing his po­etry to earn a liv­ing.

The idea seemed kind of crazy to him, but Bethune said: “Peo­ple need po­etry, es­pe­cially our peo­ple.”

Spread­ing his words

Weeks later, Langston Hughes de­cided to make po­etry his ca­reer. A friend from his col­lege days served as his driver and man­ager. They trav­eled through the South, hold­ing po­etry read­ings at col­leges at­tended by African-Amer­i­cans.

Langston Hughes wrote and read po­etry that spoke of the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing black, that taught of the strug­gles of be­ing black in a seg­re­gated United States and that gave a voice to a bet­ter life for black Amer­i­cans.

His au­di­ences were mostly African-Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents. They wel­comed his words, which moved them, made them an­gry and made them proud.

Hughes joined other writ­ers who led an African-Amer­i­can cul­tural move­ment cen­tered in New York. That move­ment was called the

Har­lem Re­nais­sance, and Hughes be­came one of its most well-known troubadours .(A troubadour is a wan­der­ing artist or en­ter­tainer.)

Young life

Langston Hughes was born in Jo­plin, Mis­souri, in 1902. He started writ­ing po­etry as a teenager, when he lived with his grand­mother in Lawrence, Kansas. He was lonely liv­ing there and found “the won­der­ful world in books.”

Hughes stud­ied at Columbia Univer­sity in New York City and then trav­eled to Africa and Europe as a crew­man on ships. Even­tu­ally he earned a de­gree from Lin­coln Univer­sity in Penn­syl­va­nia, then re­turned to New York, where he lived for most of the rest of his life.

Hughes on writ­ing

“Gen­er­ally, the first two or three lines come to me from some­thing I’m think­ing about, or look­ing at, or do­ing, and the rest of the poem ... flows from those first few lines. If there is a chance to put the poem down then, I write it down. If not, I try to re­mem­ber it un­til I get to a pen­cil and pa­per; for poems are like rain­bows: they es­cape you quickly,” Hughes wrote.

photo by Gor­don Parks, courtesy Li­brary of Congress

Langston Hughes at Lin­coln Univer­sity in 1928.

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