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Monday, November 22, 2010

Spotlight on Langston Hughes

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. 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 DunbarCarl 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 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 MindSimple 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 playMule Bone with Zora Neale Hurston.

The Weary Blues 
by Langston Hughes

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
     I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
     He did a lazy sway . . .
     He did a lazy sway . . .
To the tune o' those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
     O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
     Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man's soul.
     O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan--
     "Ain't got nobody in all this world,
       Ain't got nobody but ma self.
       I's gwine to quit ma frownin'
       And put ma troubles on the shelf."

Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more--
     "I got the Weary Blues
       And I can't be satisfied.
       Got the Weary Blues
       And can't be satisfied--
       I ain't happy no mo'
       And I wish that I had died."
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that's dead.

A Dream Deferred
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode? 

A Selected Bibliography
Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961)Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994)Dear Lovely Death (1931)Fields of Wonder (1947)Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927)Freedom's Plow (1943)Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)One-Way Ticket (1949)Scottsboro Limited (1932)Selected Poems (1959)Shakespeare in Harlem (1942)The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932)The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967)The Weary Blues (1926)
Good Morning, Revolution: Uncollected Social Protest Writings by Langston Hughes (1973)I Wonder as I Wander (1956)Laughing to Keep From Crying (1952)Not Without Laughter (1930)Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964 (2001)Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)Simple Stakes a Claim (1957)Simple Takes a Wife (1953)Simple's Uncle Sam (1965)Something in Common and Other Stories (1963)Tambourines to Glory (1958)The Arna Bontemps-Langston Hughes Letters (1980)The Big Sea (1940)The Langston Hughes Reader (1958)The Ways of White Folks (1934)
Black Nativity (1961)Collected Works of Langston Hughes, vol. 5: The Plays to 1942: Mulatto to The Sun Do Move (2000)Don't You Want to Be Free? (1938)Five Plays by Langston Hughes (1963)Little Ham (1935)Mulatto (1935)Mule Bone (1930)Simply Heavenly (1957)Soul Gone Home (1937)The Political Plays of Langston Hughes (2000)
Poetry in Translation
Cuba Libre (1948)Gypsy Ballads (1951)Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral (1957)
Masters of the Dew (1947)

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