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Langston Hughes: 10 Facts About the Famous Poet

Langston Hughes: 10 Facts

by Legacy Staff

Harlem Renaissance leader, poet, activist, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes died May 22, 1967. We’re remembering Hughes with a look at 10 key facts about his life and career.

1. Born Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was largely raised by his grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas, after his parents separated. Mary Patterson Langston instilled in her grandson a sense of racial pride and a love for activism.

2. Hughes entered Columbia University and, at his father’s insistence, studied engineering instead of writing. Hughes ultimately didn’t earn a degree from Columbia—after just a year, he left the university, citing racial prejudice there—but while in New York he did learn something that would perhaps serve him even better: he discovered Harlem.


3. Though Columbia wasn’t right for Hughes, he did earn a bachelor’s degree. After spending several years in Europe, Hughes enrolled in the historically Black Lincoln University, where he completed his education. Among his classmates was future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.

4. 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.

5. 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.

Langston Hughes in 1943 (Wikimedia Commons / Gordon Parks)

6. Though he had published a number of Socialist and otherwise political verse in his younger years, the scare of McCarthyism resulted in Hughes distancing himself from politics. The poems of his later life were lyric rather than political.

7. 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.

8. 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 Black writer.

9. Hughes was 65 when he died May 22, 1967, of complications after surgery for prostate cancer. Fans wishing to visit his final resting place should head, of course, to Harlem, where his ashes are interred at the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

10. 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.

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

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