Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1936, Library of Congress

by Carol Hobbs

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, but grew up mainly in Lawrence, Kansas. His parents divorced when he was a baby and, because Hughes’ mother traveled seeking employment, he was raised by his maternal grandmother.  She instilled in Hughes a lasting sense of racial pride and a duty to help his race.

His young adult years consisted of a short stint at college, work as a ship crewman, and trips to Paris and England.  He returned to the states to live in D.C. with his mother.  He wrote poetry and eventually earned a B.A. from Lincoln University.  He then moved to Harlem in New York where he lived for the rest of his life.

Hughes vast body of work consists of poetry, novels, a two-part autobiography, short stories, plays, operas, essays, and children’s books.  (Source:  Wikipedia)

“Hughes’ poetry was heavily influenced by his own personal experience, by the common experience of black America during his lifetime, and by jazz music, which he considered ‘one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America’ “as cited by A Noise Within.  

The title of the well-known play by Lorraine Hansberry A Raisin in the Sun was borrowed from a line by Hughes:  “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” (Source:  A Noise Within)

The following poem is one of Hughes’ most famous and was written when he was only 17.  The poem was later part of his 1926 publication The Weary Blues.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers


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.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Copyright © 2002 by Langston Hughes. 

Another equally revered poem – 

I, Too

By Langston Hughes – 1901-1967

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Knopf and Vintage Books. Copyright © 1994 by the Estate of Langston Hughes.