Don’t know if it’s just a coincidence, but today, Feb 1, the first day of Black History Month, is also the birthday of Langston Hughes. There’s an excellent short biography in The Writer’s Almanac:
It’s the birthday of the man who said of himself, “I like Tristan, goat’s milk, short novels, lyric poems, heat, simple folk, boats and bullfights; I dislike Aida, parsnips, long novels, narrative poems, cold, pretentious folk, buses and bridges.” That’s the poet Langston Hughes (books by this author), born in Joplin, Missouri (1902). His parents got divorced when he was a baby and he was sent to live with his grandmother, Mary Leary Langston, in Lawrence, Kansas. His grandmother’s first husband was Lewis Sheridan Leary, a harness maker and abolitionist. Leary joined John Brown in the raid on Harper’s Ferry, and he was killed there. Mary kept Leary’s bloodstained shawl and when her grandson was a baby she wrapped him in it. After she died he inherited the shawl. Many years later his apartment in Harlem flooded and the shawl was the only item that he salvaged.
Mary Leary Langston was a proud, college-educated woman. Even though she could barely afford her mortgage payments, she did not want to work as hired help, like so many black women did in those days. Instead, she rented out rooms to university students. She was a stern old woman who was unsure how to relate to her little grandson. But she made sure to raise him as a proud young man. When he was seven she took him to see Booker T. Washington speak — even though he didn’t understand what was going on, he said, “I was very proud that a man of my own color was the center of all this excitement.” Mary also gave young Langston copies of The Crisis, a magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Langston was fascinated by the streetcars in Lawrence and he wanted to be a streetcar conductor when he grew up. But he also loved books. The Lawrence Public Library was one of the only integrated public buildings in the city and he spent as much time there as possible, trying to make sense of his extreme loneliness, a combination of feeling abandoned by his parents and feeling left out of fun things that most boys could do because of segregation laws. He said, “Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas.”
When Langston was twelve years old his grandmother died and he went to live with some of his grandmother’s friends — they weren’t relatives but he called them Auntie and Uncle Reed. They had paid off their house and Uncle Reed had a steady job laying sewer pipes for the city. There was always plenty of food. They kept cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to neighbors and they taught the boy how to care for the animals. He helped out by collecting maple seeds to sell to a seed company, delivering newspapers, and cleaning toilets in a hotel. He had a good life with the Reeds — he said, “For me, there have never been any better people in the world.”
When he was 14 Langston’s mother sent for him. She had gotten remarried, had another son, and lived in Lincoln, Illinois. When he was graduating from eighth grade Hughes was elected class poet by a unanimous vote. He had never even written a poem before. He was one of two African-American students in his class, and he said, “In America most white people think, of course, that all Negroes can sing and dance, and have a sense of rhythm. So my classmates, knowing that a poem had to have rhythm, elected me.” His classmates might have elected him for the wrong reasons but they made the right choice. He continued writing poetry throughout high school, as well as plays, fiction, and essays.
In 1926, when he was 24 years old, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, and an essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” which thrust him into the national spotlight. He warned:
“This is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America — this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible. […] Then there are the low-down folks, the so-called common element, and they are the majority — may the Lord be praised! The people who have their nip of gin on Saturday nights and are not too important to themselves or the community, or too well fed, or too learned to watch the lazy world go round. They live on Seventh Street in Washington or State Street in Chicago and they do not particularly care whether they are like white folks or anybody else. Their joy runs, bang! into ecstasy. Their religion soars to a shout. Work maybe a little today, rest a little tomorrow. Play awhile. Sing awhile. O, let’s dance! These common people are not afraid of spirituals, as for a long time their more intellectual brethren were, and jazz is their child. They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardization. And perhaps these common people will give to the world its truly great Negro artist, the one who is not afraid to be himself.”
For the next 40 years Hughes kept writing — he wrote 16 books of poetry, more than 20 plays, 10 collections of short stories, a couple of novels, children’s books, essays, radio scripts, and even song lyrics. He died in 1967 from complications of prostate cancer.
“Through my grandmother’s stories always life moved, moved heroically toward an end. Nobody ever cried in my grandmother’s stories. They worked, or schemed, or fought. But no crying. When my grandmother died, I didn’t cry, either. Something about my grandmother’s stories (without her ever having said so) taught me the uselessness of crying about anything.”
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