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Langston Hughes, Part One



I'm Mary Tillotson.


And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program, PEOPLEIN AMERICA. Today, we tell about writer Langston Hughes, who hasbeen called the poet voice of African Americans.

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The one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of James LangstonHughes is being celebrated in the United States. A major event tookplace on his birthday, February First, in Lawrence, Kansas, where helived as a child. More than five-hundred scholars and fans gatheredthere to remember him in speeches, films, concerts, art shows andpoetry readings.

Langston Hughes is usually thought of as a poet. But he alsowrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, autobiographies,newspaper columns, children's books, and the words to operas. Healso translated into English the works of foreign poets.

Hughes was one of the first black writers who could supporthimself by his writings. He is praised for his ability to say whatwas important to millions of black people.

Hughes produced a huge amount of work during his lifetime. Healso has influenced the work of many other writers. He wrote foralmost fifty years.


Langston Hughes was famous for his descriptions of black Americanlife. He used his work to praise his people and voice his concernsabout race and social injustice. His work is known all around theworld and has been translated into many languages.

Hughes's poetry had serious messages. He often wrote about racialissues, describing his people in a realistic way. Although his storywas not often pleasant, he told it with understanding and with hope.



Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in nineteen-oh-two.His parents were separated. He spent most of his childhood with hisgrandmother in Lawrence, Kansas. She told him stories about theirfamily and their fight to end slavery. Her storytelling filled himwith pride in himself and his race. He first began to write poetrywhen he was living with her.

When he was fourteen, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, to stay withhis mother and her new husband.

He attended Central High School in Cleveland, Ohio. Langston wasnamed Class Poet one year. He published his first short storieswhile he was still in high school.


Langston Hughes struggled with a feeling of loneliness caused byhis parent's divorce. He developed a love of reading books as a wayto deal with the lack of time his parents spent with him. His lovefor reading grew into a desire to write. He wanted to reproduce thepowerful effect other writers had made upon him. Among the earlyinfluences on his writing were poets Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg andPaul Lawrence Dunbar.

After graduating from high school in nineteen-twenty, Langstonmoved to Mexico City to live with his father for one year. Hisfather had moved there to escape racism in America. His father didnot offer much warmth to his son. Yet, Langston turned the paincaused by his family problems into one of his most famous poems,"The Negro Speaks of Rivers." In this poem, he speaks of thestrength and pride of black people in ancient African civilizationsand in America.



Langston Hughes learned a lot about race, and about social andeconomic conditions while he was in Mexico. His ability to speakSpanish and his brown skin often made it easy for him to appear tobe a native. Many of his works, including a play for children, dealwith his days in Mexico.

During the time he stayed with his father in Mexico, Langstonwrote many poems because he was always unhappy. He once said that heusually created his best work when he was really not happy.

Langston had a troubled relationship with his father from whichhe never recovered fully. His father did not think he could earn aliving as a writer. His mother, however, recognized his need to be apoet.


Langston's father agreed to pay for his college education atColumbia University in New York City, if he studied engineering.Langston arrived in New York when he was nineteen years old. At theend of that first year at Columbia, he left school, broke with hisfather, and began traveling. Traveling was a lifelong love thatwould take him throughout the world before he died.

In nineteen-twenty-two, Hughes took a job on a ship and sailed toAfrica. He would later sail to France, Russia, Spain and Italy. Hewrote poems and short stories during his travels. His experienceswhile traveling greatly influenced his work. He sent a few of hiswritings back home. They were published, which helped establish himas a professional writer.

Financial problems ended Hughes's travels. He tried to find workon a ship so he could return to the United States. But in Italy, hehad problems finding work on a ship because he was black. In thepoem "I, Too," he noted that the American color line even reachedall the way over there.

((CUT TWO: "I, TOO"))


In nineteen-twenty-four, Langston Hughes returned to the UnitedStates to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. The poet VachelLindsay ate in a hotel where Hughes was working. Hughes put somepoems he had written next to Lindsay's dinner plate. Lindsay gave apoetry reading later that night. He read some of Hughes's poetry,too. Newspapers across the country wrote about Lindsay's poetryreading. Hughes became known as a new black poet.

A year later, Hughes returned to New York. Through the years helived in many places, but always came back to New York's Harlemarea. Harlem was the center of black life in New York City. Hughes'screativity was influenced by his life in Harlem.


Langston Hughes returned to New York during a period called theHarlem Renaissance. It took place during the nineteen-twenties andthirties. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of great artisticcreativity among black people. For the first time, black artisticexpression was being widely recognized. Hughes became friends withother great black writers of the time, such as Claude McKay, CounteeCullen and Zora Neal Hurston. They hoped that great art could changethe racist ideas in America about African Americans.

Hughes was considered one of the leading voices of the HarlemRenaissance. He was the first poet to use the rhythms of blackmusic. He often wrote about the everyday experiences of blackworking people. And he helped bring the movement of jazz and thesound of black speech into poetry.


Langston Hughes experimented with his writing. Other HarlemRenaissance writers wrote traditional poems like those of Englishclassic poets, such as William Shakespeare. Hughes broke free withhis writing and helped change literature forever.

Hughes became firmly established as a successful writer innineteen-twenty-six with the publication of a collection of jazzpoems called "The Weary Blues." Hughes wrote the poems in a place inHarlem where blues music was played. He loved to write while sittingin clubs listening to blues and jazz. The title poem, "The WearyBlues," was written to be played with musical instruments. The poemperfectly expressed the desire of Langston Hughes to combine blackmusic and speech in his poetry.


"I got the Weary Blues and I can't be satisfied. Got the WearyBlues and can't be satisfied. I ain't happy no mo' and I wish that Ihad died."

"And far into the night he crooned that tune. The stars went outand so did the moon. The singer stopped playing and went to bed 鈥?while the Weary Blues echoed through his head. He slept like a rockor a man that's dead."


Poems in "The Weary Blues" are warm and full of color. They havea sense of freedom, like that of jazz music. Langston Hughes wasexcited about the new form of poetry he had discovered for himself.



This Special English program was written by Cynthia Kirk. It wasproduced by Caty Weaver. The poetry was read by Langston Hughes andShep O'Neal. I'm Mary Tillotson.


And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another PEOPLEIN AMERICA program on VOA when we finish the story of the life ofLangston Hughes.

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