What happens to a dream deferred?Does it dry uplike 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 sagslike a heavy load.Or does it explode?
Langston Hughes, “Harlem” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.
Langston Hughes, poet, playwright, novelist, and Harlem Renaissance leader was born in Missouri and schooled in Cleveland, Ohio. After graduating from high school, he spent a year in Mexico followed by a year at Columbia University in New York City. During this time, he held odd jobs such as launderer, and busboy; travelling to Africa and Europe as a seaman, working as a cook at a restaurant in Montmartre, in Paris. Hughes published his first book of poetry at the age of 24. His first novel, Not Without Laughter, was published four years later. It won the Harmon Gold Medal for Literature (1930).
Hughes, lauded as the voice of the Harlem Renaissance, was renowned as the first African American to make a living from his writing. This success may have come at a price. Langston worked alongside the openly gay artist Richard Bruce Nugent and novelist Zora Neale Hurston, mentored younger writers, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, and was supported in his youth by Alain Locke, but remained highly solicitous of his public image. Making only oblique references to his sexuality in his work, much to the frustration of his peers and subsequent generations, Hughes was reticent to criticise other Black writers, perhaps due to a desire to avoid public disagreements. To protect his career, he testified at the House Un-American Activities Committee proceedings, which cost him his friendships with W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson.
Hughes was a friend of Martin Luther King, including travelling together to Nigeria in 1960. It is suggested that Hughes’s poem I Dream A World inspired MLK’s I Have A Dream speech. Hughes was regarded as a poet who was able to capture and reflect the jazz intonations of Harlem and Black America; writing poetry that resonated directly with black audiences while many others were seen as increasingly esoteric. His writing earned him the soubriquet, ‘Poet Laureate of the Negro Race‘ – a title he encouraged.
Langston Hughes died in 1967 after abdominal surgery. In his memory, his residence at 20 East 127th Street in Harlem has been given landmark status by the New York City Preservation Commission, and East 127th Street has been renamed “Langston Hughes Place.”
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