Langston Hughes – Carving an Identity with Words


Langston Hughes once proclaimed, “We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.” The year was 1926, and this sentence was crafted by Hughes as the final in an immensely important essay concerning the direction of African American art. It is because of his bold stance concerning race relations during turbulent years in America along with his lyrical wit and tireless pen that Hughes is considered one of the strongest poets, novelists, and philosophers who shaped the artistic and cultural movement commonly known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Young Hughes on the Move

Langston Hughes was born in Missouri on February 1, 1902 and moved to Lincoln, Illinois by the age of 13 following the divorce of his parents. It was during these tender years that Hughes began composing poetry; taking note of the inequalities suffered by his fellow African Americans in everyday urban neighborhoods. In 1921, after graduating high school in Cleveland, Ohio, Hughes attended Columbia University and his first poem was published. After a year at Columbia, Hughes decided to travel the seas on a freighter and spent long periods in Rome, Paris, and Africa. Along these journeys, Hughes compared the treatment of African Americans abroad and in his home country, and would continuously discuss the injustices faced by African Americans throughout his career.

Hughes’s Sphere of Creativity

By 1930, Hughes completed his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and his first novel,Not Without Laughter, was published and won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Hughes now resided in Harlem, the predominately black neighborhood in northern Manhattan. Harlem was not only home to Langston Hughes, but also the burgeoning jazz scene that musically defined the African American identity. Jazz became the beat to which Hughes’s words flowed. The people of Harlem became characters who he praised or condemned in his works.

Like many African American writers at that time, Hughes was greatly influenced by the sights and sounds of Harlem, but was disdained by an alarming pattern he noticed in his fellow writers – the obvious desire to not be regarded as a “black artist,” but simply an “artist.” Hughes addressed this issue in his 1926 essayThe Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain. Hughes encourages his fellow African American artists “to change through the force of his art that old whispering ‘I want to be white,’ hidden in the aspirations of his people, to ‘Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro – and beautiful!’ In this artistic call-to-arms, Hughes boldly urges the use of creativity as a weapon against oppression and self-delusion. Hughes empowers young African American artists to proclaim their heritage, not just loud and proud, but aloud.

Langston Hughes used his words to comment honestly about the African American experience from the 1920s through the 1960s. By doing so, he was an artistic pioneer in the sense that he went against the patterns established by other African American writers in a determined effort to elevate the status of African Americans in America. His works predate (and influenced) the civil rights and black power movements.

“Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly” – Langston Hughes,Dreams