Early YearsJames Mercer Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, to James Nathaniel Hughes, a lawyer and businessman, and Carrie Mercer (Langston) Hughes, a teacher. The couple separated shortly thereafter. James Hughes was, by his sons account, a cold man who hated blacks (and hated himself for being one), feeling that most of them deserved their ill fortune because of what he considered their ignorance and laziness. Langstons youthful visits to him there, although sometimes for extended periods, were strained and painful.
He attended Columbia University in 1921-22, and when he died he, left everything to three elderly women who had cared for him in his last illness, and Langston was not even mentioned in his will.Hughes mother went through protracted separations and reconciliations in her second marriage (she and her son from this marriage would live with him off and on in later years. He was raised by alternately by her, by his maternal grandmother, and, after his grandmothers death, by family friends. By the time he was fourteen, he had lived in Joplin; Buffalo; Cleveland; Lawrence, Kansas; Mexico City; Topeka, Kansas; Colorado Springs; Kansas City; and Lincoln, Illinois. In 1915, he was class poet of his grammar-school graduating class in Lincoln. From 1916 to 1920, he attended Central High School in Cleveland, where he was a star athlete, wrote poetry and short stories (and published many of them in the Central High Monthly), and on his own read such modern poets as Paul Laurence Dunbar, Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg. His classmates were for the most part the children of European immigrants, who treated him largely without discrimination and introduced him to leftist political ideas.
After graduation in 1920, he went to Mexico to teach English for a year. While on the train to Mexico, he wrote the poem the Negro Speaks of Rivers, which was published in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis, a leading black publication. After his academic year at Columbia, he lived for a year in Harlem, embarked on a six-month voyage as a cabin boy on a merchant freighter bound for West Africa. After its return, he took a job on a ship sailing to Holland. After being robbed on a train in Italy and working his passage back to New York in November of 1924, Hughes moved in with his mother and brother in a small, unheated apartment in Washington, D. C.
, where he worked in a laundry. For a time, he worked as an assistant to the distinguished black historian Dr. Carter A. Woodson, but he found the tedious research tasks disagreeable, and he was angered and offended by the harsh, avert segregation of life in the nations capital. He also began to make the acquaintance of writers and intellectuals associated with the Harlem Renaissance, the extraordinary flourishing of black arts and culture in the 1920s. He won prizes in poetry contests sponsored by the black journals Opportunity and The Crisis, and also had poems accepted by Vanity, a leading mainstream journal of the arts.
In May 1925, Opportunity held a dinner for its award winners, where Hughes was sought out by Carl Van Vechten, whom he had met the previous year. He was a photographer who had interested himself in the Harlem Renaissance, asked recommend to his own publisher. Less than three weeks later, The Weary Blues was accepted for publication by the prestigious New York firm of Alfred A.
Knopf.While waiting for the books publication, Hughes was working as a busboy at Washingtons Ward man Park Hotel, where, while serving the poet Vachel Lindsay and his wife at dinner, he left several of his own poems on the table. Lindsay read them that evening to a large audience at his poetry reading, and the story of his discovery (he was unaware that Hughes had already published widely in magazines and had a book in press, although he accepted the discovery of these facts quite good-naturedly) was locally and then nationally reported, bringing Hughes a good deal of welcome publicity.Literary CareerThe Weary Blues appeared at the beginning of 1926. Some of its poems were in dialect, on jazz and cabaret themes; others