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The Making of the Poet: Langston Hughes

A Review of Faith Berry's Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem

Faith Berry is a graduate student of comparative literature.  A member of the NAACP and a television scriptwriter, Berry has also worked for the President's Advisory Committee for Women, the Department of Labor Women's Bureau, and the United Nations Decade for Women Mid-Decade's Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. She wrote many speeches and oversaw various press and media projects for the Department of Labor Women's Bureau.

The Harlem Renaissance represented a period of an outpour of Afro-American literature, music, and culture. At the time, such a sudden release of black works looked promising for an advancement of the status of Afro-Americans. This period, however, did not bring Afro-Americans complete elevation; the Afro-American race would have to wait half a century later for that freedom. Despite the failed goals of the Harlem Renaissance, this time produced many renowned black writers, artists, and musicians. Among the crowd was Langston Hughes. Depicted in Faith Berry's Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Hughes grew up bothered by the discrimination of his people, and made it his goal to fight racial injustice. Talented at a young age with his writing skills, Langston Hughes pursued that skill and spent his entire life writing to end social injustice and oppression among his race.

Berry begins by providing details of Hughes' childhood-one far from relief and satisfaction. When he was still an infant, his father, James Hughes, left to Mexico when his wife refused to leave the US. As a result, Hughes' mother brought her son to live with his grandmother at only a little more than a year old in Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes moved back and forth between his mother and grandmother a great deal and did not experience a pleasant childhood. Without a fatherly figure, Hughes sought more of a maternal love from his mother, yet did not find it - due to his mother staying out most of the time working to pay for expenses. Despite her constant outings, Carrie did try to compensate for the absence for Hughes' father, and being particularly interested in plays and writing herself, influenced Hughes by "nurturing the boy in her free time in the things she liked-plays and books."1 Hughes later began first grade at the age of six in Topeka and immersed himself behind the copious amount of books after discovering a local library. Though he lived with his mother in first grade, Hughes returned to live with his grandmother when he entered the next grade. During the time he spent living at his grandmother's, Hughes felt "unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome."2 To free himself from that feeling, Hughes turned to books for a safe haven and security. He continued to stay with her until he was twelve, when his grandmother passed away. When that occurred, Hughes was passed back and forth between other relatives and friends. Only when he lived with the Reeds, friends of Carrie, did Hughes feel like he belonged. As Hughes stayed at the Reeds, his mother sent for him to join her just before he turned fourteen. By then, Carrie had remarried a cook with an infant son, and Hughes accepted both, especially his stepbrother as he had no siblings of his own. When it was time to graduate from his grammar school in Lincoln, Illinois, Hughes was elected class poet, despite the fact that he had never written a single poem before. After he graduated in 1916 from grammar school, Hughes moved to Cleveland to join his stepfather. There, he entered Central High School, predominantly filled with white immigrants. Although most students were white, Hughes found the immigrants to be more democratic and less discriminatory towards blacks. However, he discovered that religious differences played a larger role in the lives of the immigrants, and since he was black and unreligious, he won many class offices as a compromise candidate. Popular with both classmates and teachers, Hughes worked on many projects and joined many clubs. But it was when he entered his sophomore year in high school that Hughes became seriously interested in poetry and in writing. Regardless of this interest, he kept the early poems he had written in high school to himself; he feared other people might not like them or understand them. Then at the age of seventeen, Hughes went down to Mexico to visit his father, the first time in a decade. When Hughes arrived, he quickly realized that his father possessed materialistic and discriminatory qualities. Returning to high school upset at his father, Hughes grew determined to attend college to receive a better education. In the summer after graduation from high school though, Hughes once again traveled down to Mexico to see his father. It was also during this trip that Hughes wrote one of his most famous poems, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which became his first poem to be published a year later in The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP. This time in Mexico, he had better relations with his father and although his father wanted him to pursue a career in mining engineering, Hughes eventually persuaded him to send money to attend Columbia University. In 1921, Hughes settled in Harlem and quickly was absorbed by the lively culture and people. When fall arrived, he moved to the dorms and began his term at Columbia. While there, Hughes found that the courses in the university did not satisfy him and that the staff and students were unfriendly towards him. Consequently, he quit and returned to Harlem. Though Hughes gave up his education and got a job as a bus boy, he continued to write poems and his career as a poet had only just begun.

Berry now turns to Hughes' life as a young man. By this period, Hughes had regularly sent poems to The Crisis and his poems began to attract attention. Alain Locke, interested in Hughes' poems, began a correspondence with Hughes in 1923 and "was thoroughly convinced that there were enough black writers, artists, and thinkers to generate a new and distinctive cultural movement."3 Locke was working on his book, The New Negro and asked Hughes to contribute to it. This book would shape the period to what became the Harlem Renaissance. Though Hughes sent Locke poems and wrote to him regularly, he avoided setting up a face-to-face meeting; Hughes then was rather shy. Another interest took hold of Hughes besides writing at that time - his yearning to go overseas. In June 1963, Hughes was on his way to Africa. Aboard the ship, Hughes threw overboard all the books he accumulated since he was young; he did this since he "believed in books more than people-which of course was wrong" and "casting his books into the sea purged him of that belief."4 When Hughes reached Africa, he became appalled at the exploitation of Africans by the whites and saw this as no different from the discrimination in the US. After his return from the continent and a brief stay with his mother and stepfather, Hughes went back overseas, this time back and forth between New York and Holland. At New York, Hughes met another correspondent he gained, Countee Cullen and stayed at his house shortly as a guest before voyaging to Paris. The trips to Europe and Africa had a deepening impact on Hughes' social and racial consciousness, and also his personality. While in Paris, Hughes finally met Locke, but he was not the timid and shy person like before, as his voyages had made him bolder. Locke took Hughes on a tour around Paris and showed him many landmarks and historical locations in which Hughes enjoyed greatly. Finally in 1924, Hughes returned to New York and then back to Harlem. The first thing Hughes did back at Harlem was spend time as a guest again at Cullen's and attend a dance given for the benefit of the NAACP. There Hughes met all sorts of editors and writers. During this time, Hughes' mother was living with her relatives in Washington DC, but because of the humiliation of having a fairly well known son but still poor, Hughes took his mother and rented another place. Struggling to make ends meet for both his family and himself, Hughes took on odd jobs, but still continued to write poems. He eventually got a well paying job as personal assistant to Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the distinguished black scholar and founder of the Association for the study of Negro Life and History. At this job, he met many high class blacks but he "disdained the rigid class and color differences the 'best people' drew between themselves and Afro-Americans of darker complexion, of smaller means and lesser formal education."5 In addition, this group of people thought the publication of The New Negro would bring black people contempt of white America because of the black dialect used. As Hughes wrote poems and won various awards for them during this time, he decided that he wanted to go to Lincoln University. The problem was that he didn't have the funds. However, the meeting with Arthur Spingharn and his wife solved it when Mrs. Spingarn became Hughes' secret benefactress and offered Hughes to finance his education. At Lincoln, Hughes published his first book and received relatively well praises. While attending the university, Hughes slowly became aware of the color line between the staff and the students. This upset him deeply because Lincoln University was founded for blacks. After staying at Lincoln for some time, Hughes prepared to and later visited the South. In the South, Hughes was surprised at the black's shamelessness of their color and their happy attitude. He also was receiving financial aid from Charlotte Mason at that time. However, Hughes realized that Mason was using her money to shape him in a certain direction and when Hughes couldn't bear the manipulation anymore, he split with her. In 1930, Hughes met with Zora Hurston to suggest the idea of collaborating to write a play. They came up with Mule Bones and decided to separately work on their parts and finish the final draft later. Hughes also wrote Not Without Laughter during this period and it eventually became his most widely translated work. Unfortunate times then fell on Hughes when he discovered that Zora Hurston had sent in Mule Bones under her own name to be published. After months of battling, he let Hurston have the play and throughout the process had also alienated his friend Locke, who supported Hurston's stance. To get some rest and time to relax, Hughes left to Cuba with Zell Ingram, a young artist. In Cuba, Hughes discovered that, unfortunately, he was quite famous there and therefore did not enjoy time of relaxation in isolation. Nevertheless, Hughes traveled around Cuba and after went to Haiti; there, the social and racial caste angered him. He saw how the rich blacks loathed the lower blacks and the sight of this kind of oppression outraged him. When he returned to the US, Hughes prepared another visit to the South.

By this time, Hughes no longer was unknown. Rather famous, he received many offers to lecture. Using this as an opportunity to go south, Hughes began his lecture tour in New Jersey. As Hughes continued deeper and deeper into the South, he discovered that "warm, understanding white acquaintances were exceedingly rare."6 During this tour, Hughes had a chance to visit the Tuskeegee Institute. There however, his adulation of Booker T. Washington shattered when he learned the great Afro-American meant what he said about keeping the races separate. At the end of the lecture in the South, Hughes and some friends drove to California to continue the tour there. When Noel Sullivan, who had exchanged letters with Hughes six months before, heard Hughes was coming, he extended an invitation to him to come stay at his place. There Hughes enjoyed a rich lifestyle but after some time, left for Europe when he accepted a job to write the English dialogue for the screenplay for a film in Russia. Though Hughes looked forward to this trip, he and the crew immediately encountered trouble over in Russia. Hughes immediately found the script inaccurate and erred; in addition, many of the crew members refused to cooperate. The film was never produced. However, Hughes decided to travel to Soviet Central Asia for a few months and learned the history and culture of various locations. Returning to Moscow after his expeditions to Asia, Hughes remained in the city five more months. Because of the lack of discrimination in Russia, Hughes wrote to defend the country, accusing the US of having a worse society. After his stay in Russia, Hughes next voyaged to Japan. But since he visited Chinese Communists, he was interrogated back in Japan and then kicked out. Finally returning to the US, Hughes accepted a welcome at Sullivan's mansion. After talking about his trip for a week, Hughes retreated to Sullivan's beach house at Carmel by the sea. While there, Hughes worked on his short stories about "prevailing attitudes of whites toward Afro-Americans at the time."7 He also hired a new literary agent, Maxim Lieber, who would prove to be an extremely dependent and faithful contact for Hughes. When radical Americans began to target Hughes for his remarks, he moved to Reno and during his stay, Hughes went into almost total seclusion. Then because Hughes was no longer staying for free as he had at Sullivan’s, he struggled with finances. When his father left him nothing in his will, Hughes became more desperate and now wrote mainly to make an income. In 1935, Hughes moved in with the Bontemps family for the summer. During his stay, he collaborated with the Bontemps in several projects including Bon Bon Buddy. When the summer ended, Hughes left for New York and learned that his play Mulatto was also being rehearsed, but because much of the original script was changed, the play was a fiasco. When Hughes learned of a revolution happening in Spain, he flew over to help the anti-fascist forces. Supporting the forces there morally and even going to the front lines, it was a miracle that Hughes wasn't killed. When Hughes came back to Paris, he had lost fourteen pounds. Over the next couple of years, Hughes worked on plays and lectures. By the time America entered the war, Hughes was back in Harlem.

Hughes' last section of his life was troubling but in the end became widely respected. With the onset of World War II, Hughes wrote to boost American morale. Though he "had opposed everything about the Second World War, he made every effort to help America win it."8 In 1943, he introduced his most enduring contribution to literature: the folk character "Simple." Widely popularized, "Simple" drew a positive reaction. When WWII ended and the Cold War began, Hughes, known for his left stance, became harassed by the McCarthy Committee. Although Hughes came out of the McCarthy hearing with unpunished, many still labeled him as a Communist. Even Lieber was forced to flee to Mexico. Hughes' reputation was repaired when he was invited to a White House reception for an African diplomat in 1961. By his final years, there were more tributes and testimonials in his honor than he could attend. On May 22, 1967, Hughes died of a prostate gland infection, but lived on as a revered poet, playwright, novelist, song lyricist, librettist, journalist, essayist, and much more to many people. Much of his works was deeply influenced by other known figures and would not have been there without the Harlem Renaissance.

During Faith Berry's lifetime, she had met Hughes briefly in Paris in 1965 and became interested in his influence on Francophone poets of the Caribbean and Africa. Arna Bontemps at the time was supposed to be the one to write Hughes' biography as described in the will. However when Bontemps died in 1973, there was no trace of a biography of Hughes. Through encouragement of friends and reviewers, Berry continued her research on Hughes. This period was also after Martin Luther King Jr.'s death so blacks had finally began receiving equal rights. Such a time makes it proper for Berry to write a biography of a revered Afro-American who died not too long ago.

In general, Berry's Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem received fairly positive reviews. Kirkus Reviews described the book as "a consci-entious, intensely detailed documentation of Hughes' life."9 However the biography is limited by the "unavailability of the complete Hughes papers" and by Berry's decision to treat "the years after 1948 in a sketchy epilogue chapter."10 Despite the limitations, Kirkus Reviews praised Berry as "scrupulous as a scholar."11 The Miami Times also exults Berry in being able to write a biography without full access to the Hughes papers. It gave credit that Berry was unprejudiced in acknowledging Hughes being "an understandably closeted black gay man."12

This biography of Hughes overall seemed to cover Hughes thoroughly. However, it does go into too much detail in certain sections and not enough on some like landmarks as Street Scene and the Communist hearings from HUAC. Aside from this fault the book in general does a good job in covering the life of Langston Hughes and Berry may be one of the few who "knew him better than he knew himself."13

Raised up in a tumultuous family without loving parents, Hughes had to overcome great impediments to become the great poet. Even when he did become famous, he lived on the edge of with barely enough money to cover costs. Despite all the hardships, including not "able to collect enough from royalties despite having written hundreds of works"14 Hughes prevailed and his writings makes him one of the greatest poets not only of the Harlem Renaissance but also of all time.

1. Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem, Connecticut, Lawrence Hill and Publishers, Inc., 1983, 5.
2. Berry, Faith. 15.
3. Berry, Faith. 55.
4. Berry, Faith. 84.
5. Berry, Faith. 88.
6. Berry, Faith. 152.
7. Berry, Faith. 248.
8. Berry, Faith. 315.
9. "LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem." Kirkus Reviews. Web. 03 June 2012. <
10. "LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem." Kirkus Reviews. Web. 03 June 2012. <
11. "LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem." Kirkus Reviews. Web. 03 June 2012. <
12. "LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem." Nov.-Dec. 2003. Web. 29 May 2012. <>.
13. "LANGSTON HUGHES: Before and Beyond Harlem." Nov.-Dec. 2003. Web. 29 May 2012. <>.
14. Berry, Faith. 198.