Today’s Google Doodle celebrates Langston Hughes’ 113th birthday and his poem I Dream a World.
It also marks the beginning of Black History Month 2015.
Hughes was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance and became well-known after its zenith as a poet, civil rights activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist. He traveled throughout the world as an ambassador for black causes, having built himself from humble beginnings on the Midwest plains.
Here’s what you need to know about him.
1. He Had an Eclectic Ancestry
He was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri making today his would-be 113th birthday. He died in 1967 at the age of 65, but not before making himself a name as a poet, civil rights activist, novelist, playwright, and journalist.
He came from an eclectic ancestry. While his work would focus on black culture, Hughes himself was part Scottish, Jewish, French, English, and Native American.
He spent most of his childhood in Lawrence, Kansas.
2. He Traveled A Lot
Hughes traveled a lot in his youth. For a short stint, he lived in Mexico with his father. He then attended Columbia University in New York City but left because of racial prejudice. He then joined the S.S. Malone in 1923 and traveled Europe and Africa. Upon returning to the United States, he enrolled in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Lincoln University is the United States’ first degree-granting historically African-American university. He graduated with a B.A. and moved to Harlem.
He spent the remainder of his life in Harlem and New Jersey with trips to Asia and Russia due to his interest in communism. He also spent some time in the Caribbean.
3. He Was Involved With the Harlem Renaissance
Hughes was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry became well-known in the mid-to-late 1920s. He was known for his “pedestrian” style. A famous poem of his from the time is The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1920):
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….
With all his writings, Hughes hoped to unite black culture.
His influence was far-reaching and his writings would inspire black writers the world over, especially in the Caribbean, French Africa, and France proper. Writers who have cited Hughes as an influence include Nicolás Guillén, Léopold Aimé Césaire, Jacques Roumain, and Sédar Senghor.
4. He Was an Accused Communist & Homosexual
Hughes was also interested in communism, which was common amongst African-Americans in the 1920s as they saw it as a commonsense way to equality. Hughes wrote poems about communism and published some political works, but never fully joined the cause. Despite traveling to Soviet Russia and China, he refrained from fully calling himself “a communist.” But this didn’t stop other people from calling him one.
Some biographers and academics also consider Hughes to have been a homosexual, as his poems could be construed as having a gay undertone to them similar to Walt Whitman. Hughes never married.
Hughes’ alleged homosexuality was also put on display in a film about him titled Looking for Langston, which came out in 1989. British filmmaker Isaac Julien made the film, which was not an autobiographical film but more about being black and gay in the Harlem Renaissance through the eyes of Hughes.
The promotional poster for the film is above.
Hughes’ sexuality was also commented on in Spike Lee’s Get on the Bus (1996) where a black gay character (Isaiah Washington) punches a homophobic man saying, “This is for James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.”
5. He Wrote I Dream a World
Hughes left behind a rich catalogue of over 50 works that include fiction, non-fiction, poems, children books, and political writings. His involvement of the growth of the African-American community was cut short age 65 when he died due to complications of surgery from prostate cancer.
The Google Doodle today particularly celebrates his poem I Dream a World:
I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom’s way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world!
Hughes was cremated after his death and his remains are interred beneath a floor medallion in the middle of the foyer in the Arthur Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. The medallion has a quote from one of his more famous poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers (1920), which reads: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
His memory will be celebrated today in Providence, Rhode Island at the Metcalf Auditorium with the 20th Annual Langston Hughes Poetry Reading from 1 to 3:30 PM.
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