Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri on February 1, 1902. His mother and father soon separated after his birth. Langston was raised by his mother, grandmother, and childless couple named Reed. He attended public school in Kansas and Illinois and graduated from high school in Cleveland, Ohio. Most of his high school friends (most which were white) remembered him as a handsome Indian-looking boy who everyone liked because of his quiet, natural ways and abilities. In his senior year he was chosen class poet and editor of the yearbook.
Langston spent the following year with his father in Mexico. His father tried to discourage him from his writing, but Langston s poetry was beginning to appear in the Brownie s Book, a publication for children edited by W.E.B Du Bois, and he was starting to work on more ambitious material dealing with adult realities.
Langston returned to America and enrolled at Columbia University. Langston left the university after a year because he found the atmosphere there to be displeasing. He did many odd jobs, but in 1923 he signed up to be a steward on a freighter plane. His first voyage took him to the west coast of Africa. In 1924 he spent 6 months in Paris. He was fairly happy, he wrote more poetry and experimented with what he called racial rhythm s in poetry.
Later in 1924 Hughes went to live with his mother in Washington, D.C. He hoped to earn enough money to return to college, but work as a hotel busboy paid very little, and life in the nation's capital, where class distinctions among African Americans were quite firm, made him unhappy. He wrote many poems. Hughes resumed his education in 1925 and graduated from Lincoln University in 1929. Not without Laughter (1930) was his first novel. The story deals with an African American boy caught between two worlds and two attitudes. The boy's hardworking, respectability-seeking mother provides a counterpoint to his high-spirited, easy-laughing, footloose father. The mother is oriented to the middle-class values of the white world, the father believes that fun and laughter are the only virtues worth pursuing. Though the boy's character is blurred, Hughes's attention to details that reveal African American culture in America gives the novel strength. The relative commercial success of his novel inspired Hughes to try making his living as an author. In 1931 he made the first of what became annual lecture tours. He took a trip to Soviet Union the next year. Meanwhile, he turned out poems, essays, book reviews, song lyrics, plays, and short stories. He edited five anthologies of African American writing and collaborated with Arna Bontemps on another and on a book for children.
As a newspaper columnist, Hughes created "Simple," probably his most lasting character, brought his style to perfection, and solidified his reputation as the "most well-expressed spokesman" for African Americans. The Simple sketches, collected in five volumes, are presented as conversations between an uneducated, African American city dweller, Jesse B. Simple, and an educated but less sensitive African American acquaintance. The sketches, which ran in the Chicago Defender for 25 years, are too varied in subject, too relevant to the universal human condition, and too remarkable in their display of Hughes's best writing for any quick summary. That Simple is a universal man, even though his language, habits, and personality are the result of his particular experiences as an African American man, is a measure of Hughes's genius.
Hughes received numerous fellowships, awards, and honorary degrees, including the Anis field-Wolf Award (1953) for a book on improving race relations. He taught creative writing at two universities, and made recordings of African American history, music observations, and his own poetry. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His work, some of which was translated into a dozen languages, earned him an international reputation unlike any other African American writer except Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. Forty-seven volumes bear Hughes's name. He died in New York City on May 22, 1967.