Happy Birthday Langston Hughes!

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?

~”Harlem” by Langston Hughes

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1901 or 1902, in Joplin, Missouri to Carrie Langston Hughes and James Nathaniel Hughes. He was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and an influential contributor to American literature during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes spent his early years in Lawrence, Kansas with his maternal grandmother after his parents divorced. She raised him in an all-Black community, where he developed his passion for activism and writing. Hughes began courses at Columbia University in 1921, but decided he wanted a more worldly education after a year. He immersed himself in the cultures of Harlem and worked various odd jobs, including one as a ship crewman. This experience allowed him the opportunity to travel to Europe and Western Africa as an American expat. After taking time to gain life experience, Hughes decided to keep his promise to his father and enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1929.

Four From Illinois. An American Portfolio (NAID 88693786; Local Identifier 306-PAR-9-24)

Hughes was one of the most prolific writers of the 20th Century. His poems, stories, and plays celebrated Black life, history, and culture. His first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was written while visiting his father in Mexico after graduating high school. This poem was published in 1921, in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s “Crisis Magazine”. Hughes continued to write professionally, and in 1926, he published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues in 1926. Other acclaimed works include his poetry collections The Dream Keeper and Other Poems (1932), Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), and The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times (1967). Hughes also published several novels and non-fiction books such as Not Without Laughter (1930), The Ways of White Folks (1934), and The Big Sea (1940). Hughes received the Harmon Award for Literature, Ainsfeld-Wolfe Award, and the Spingarn Medal. He received honorary degrees from Lincoln University, Howard University, and Western Reserve University, established the New Negro Theater in Los Angeles and founded the Skyloft Players in Chicago, and was a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

Image of Langston Hughes’ home in New York. New York SP Hughes, Langston, House (NAID 75319640).

The National Archives hold several textual documents, moving images, and sound recordings related to the life and writings of Langston Hughes. RG 79 New York SP Hughes, Langston, House (NAID 75319640) is the application for Hughes’ home in New York to be added to the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the records held at the National Archives relating to Langston Hughes are sound recordings or moving images, which include RG 306 Tell It Like It Was: Harlem Renaissance: The Black Poets (NAID 102038284), RG 306 Achievements in American Black History: Literature and Poetry (NAID 102037800), and RG 517 Langston Hughes: the Dream Keeper (NAID 77176249).

Additional information relating to Langston Hughes can be found on the Rediscovering Black History Blog. Below are a few selections:

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