Langston Hughes

Poet, Social Activist, Novelist, Playwright & Columnist

“Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”

Langston Hughes was an American poet, novelist, and playwright whose African-American themes made him a primary contributor to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

James Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. His parents divorced when he was a small child, and his father moved to Mexico. He was raised by his grandmother until he was thirteen, when he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother and her husband, before the family eventually settled in Cleveland, Ohio. It was in Lincoln, Illinois, that Hughes began writing poetry. Following graduation, he spent a year in Mexico and a year at Columbia University.

Langston Hughes

During these years, he held odd jobs as an assistant cook, launderer, and a busboy, and travelled to Africa and Europe working as a seaman. In November 1924, he moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.

Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in “Montage of a Dream Deferred.” His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Unlike other notable black poets of the period – Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen – Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in May 22, 1967, in New York. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem, New York City, has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”

In addition to leaving us a large body of poetic work, Hughes wrote eleven plays and countless works of prose, including the well-known “Simple” books: Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Stakes a Claim, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple's Uncle Sam. He edited the anthologies The Poetry of the Negro and The Book of Negro Folklore, wrote an acclaimed autobiography (The Big Sea) and co-wrote the play Mule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston.

The Ballad Of The Landlord

Landlord, landlord
My roof has sprung a leak.
Don't you ‘member I told you about it
Way last week?

Landlord, landlord,
These steps is broken down.
When you come up yourself
It's a wonder you don't fall down.

Ten Bucks you say I owe you?
Ten Bucks you say is due?
Well, that's Ten Bucks more’n I'l pay you
Till you fix this house up new.

What? You gonna get eviction orders?
You gonna cut off my heat?
You gonna take my furniture and
Throw it in the street?

Um-huh! You talking high and mighty.
Talk on-till you get through.
You ain't gonna be able to say a word
If I land my fist on you.

Police! Police!
Come and get this man!
He's trying to ruin the government
And overturn the land!

Copper's whistle!
Patrol bell!
Arrest.
Precinct Station.
Iron cell.
Headlines in press:
Man Threatens landlord
Tenant Held Bail
Judge Gives Negro 90 Days In County Jail!


Sylvester's Dying Bed

I woke up this mornin’
‘Bout half-past three.
All the womens in town
Was gathered round me.

Sweet gals was a-moanin’,
“Sylvester's gonna die!”
And a hundred pretty mamas
Bowed their heads to cry.

I woke up little later
‘Bout half-past fo’,
The doctor ‘n’ undertaker's
Both at ma do’.

Black gals was a-beggin’,
“You can't leave us here!”
Brown-skins cryin’, “Daddy!
Honey! Baby! Don't go, dear!”

But I felt ma time's a-comin’,
And I know'd I's dyin’ fast.
I seed the River Jerden
A-creepin’ muddy past–
But I's still Sweet Papa ‘Vester,
Yes, sir! Long as life do last!

So I hollers, “Com’ere, babies,
Fo’ to love yo’ daddy right!”
And I reaches up to hug ‘em–
When the Lawd put out the light.

Then everything was darkness
In a great … big … night.


As I Grew Older

It was a long time ago.
I have almost forgotten my dream.
But it was there then,
In front of me,
Bright like a sun––
My dream.
And then the wall rose,
Rose slowly,
Slowly,
Between me and my dream.
Rose until it touched the sky––
The wall.
Shadow.
I am black.
I lie down in the shadow.
No longer the light of my dream before me,
Above me.
Only the thick wall.
Only the shadow.
My hands!
My dark hands!
Break through the wall!
Find my dream!
Help me to shatter this darkness,
To smash this night,
To break this shadow
Into a thousand lights of sun,
Into a thousand whirling dreams
Of sun!


Dream Boogie

Good morning, daddy!
Ain't you heard
The boogie-woogie rumble
Of a dream deferred?

Listen closely:
You'll hear their feet
Beating out and beating out a –

You think
It's a happy beat?

Listen to it closely:
Ain't you heard
something underneath
like a –

What did I say?

Sure,
I'm happy!
Take it away!

Hey, pop!
Re-bop!
Mop!

Y-e-a-h!


Life Is Fine

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a–been so cold
I might've sunk and died.

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn't a–been so high
I might've jumped and died.

But it was High up there! It was high!

So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love––
But for livin' I was born

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry––
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!


Quick Facts

Birth Date:
February 1, 1902

Death Date:
May 22, 1967


  • After college, Hughes returned to New York, where he would remain a resident of Harlem for most of his life. He became part of the vibrant community of black artists who drove the Harlem Renaissance ‐ his contemporaries included Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, and more.
  • Hughes found the idea of Communism interesting as an alternative to segregation. Though his interest led him to visit the Soviet Union and travel throughout the country, he never officially joined the Communist Party. This saved him during the 1950s, when he was called before Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations to answer to allegations of Communism. His interest wasn’t deemed deep enough for any serious consequences.
  • Though he may be best known as a poet, Hughes was prolific in a wide variety of writing styles. In addition to 15 books of poetry, he published a number of novels and short story collections, nonfiction books such as A Pictorial History of the Negro in America, plays, children’s books, and more. He edited the literary magazine Common Ground, co-wrote the screenplay for Way Down South, and wrote two autobiographies.
  • Hughes was given many awards and honors ‐ a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed him to travel to Spain and the Soviet Union, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievements by an African American. He was awarded honorary degrees by Lincoln University, Howard University, and Western Reserve University. After his death, the City College of New York began awarding an annual Langston Hughes Medal to an influential and engaging African-American writer.
  • One of Hughes’s best-known poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published when Hughes was still in his teens. Its famous line, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” was used as his epitaph.
  • Langston Hughes
  • Langston Hughes
  • Langston Hughes

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