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Happy Birthday, Langston Hughes!

Photo: Carl Van Vechten

Today is not only the first day of Black History Month, it is Langston Hughes’ birthday. Born James Mercer Langston Hughes in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes eventually became one of America’s greatest and most prolific poets who pioneered jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance who wrote about the time when “the Negro was in vogue.”

“I, Too, Sing America” is one of my favorite poems from Langston Hughes. In this poem, Langston called for equality, and that call still rings true today. The only poems I regard more highly than “I, Too” are “Harlem,” whose words inspired A Raisin in the Sun, and “Dreams,” which is a poem my college president would frequently recite during speaking engagements. Each poem is short, but powerful. They speak to what it means to be Black and marginalized in America.

I Too Am America Book Cover

I recently read the children’s book, I, Too, Am America that uses the words of Langston Hughes along with pictures created by Caldecott Medal and Coretta Scott King Award-winning illustrator Bryan Collier to tell the story of the Black American Pullman porters along with the many facets of Black America. This poem once again brought tears to my eyes, but there were still smiles because Collier’s visionary illustrations also invoke hope. I am really looking forward to becoming more familiar with the entire oeuvre of Langston Hughes, and I hope you will join me. 

4 Must-Read Books by Langston Hughes

The list of must-read works by Langston Hughes is long and extensive. The following are only a few of Hughes’ works that bibliophiles should add to the top of their reading lists. 

The Big Sea: An Autobiography 

The Big Sea by Langston Hughes Book Cover

Langston Hughes came of age in the 1920s. In The Big Sea, Hughes recounts the memorable years he spent in Paris as a cook and waiter in nightclubs surrounded by musicians, drunks, dancers, and dope fiends as well as his time in Harlem as a rising poet during the Harlem Renaissance. 

Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life

This 1930 play was written with Nora Zeale Hurston, and the process severed the relationship of these once close friends. Both Hurston and Hughes wanted to write a comedy about African American life that didn’t contain racial stereotypes. Inspired by a folktale Hurston discovered during an anthropological trip in Florida, Mule Bone tells the story of Jim and Dave, partners in a struggling song-and-dance team, who let a woman come between them. The situation brings chaos to their small hometown in Florida. 

The Ways of White Folks 

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes Book Cover

Langston Hughes blends elements of blues, jazz, and song into this collection of 14 short stories depicting the sometimes humorous and often tragic interactions between Black and white Americans during the 1920s and 30s. One of the standout stories is “Cora Unashamed.” The story is about a Black woman isolated in a small Midwestern town who eventually lashes out against the hypocrisy of the white people who employ her. 

The Weary Blues 

Hughes was just twenty-four when he published his first collection of poems. In The Weary Blues, he speaks directly and powerfully to the Black American experience during the time where their voices were rarely seen in literature. The title refers to the books signature award-winning poem that symbolizes the Black struggle.

Have you read the works of Langston Hughes, lately?

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