HE HAS been called the voice of Harlem and the poet laureate of African-Americans. James Langston Hughes was a virtuoso who imbued his lines with the echoes of jazz and gospel. More important, Hughes was a 20th-century Chaucer, capturing common experiences in bold new rhythms. He once said, "I tried to write poems like the songs they sang on Seventh Street... (these songs) had the pulse beat of the people who keep on going."
Hughes knew what it took to keep on going. He was born in Joplin, Mo., on Feb. 1, 1902. He parents divorced when he was small, and his father later moved to Mexico. Young Langston began writing in eighth grade and was voted class poet.
Hughes attended Columbia University for one year before traveling to Africa. There, he found one of his recurring themes: the archetypal black who has heard the rivers from the Congo to the Mississippi.
Hughes then traveled to France and did odd jobs for much of 1924.
In November of that year, Hughes moved to Harlem and found the rhythm his words needed. The Harlem Renaissance was flourishing, and he loved to write while sitting in clubs, listening to blues and jazz. His first poetry book was published in 1926.
He earned a bachelor's degree from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, in 1929. He would pen 15 more poetry collections before his death in 1967.
Critics have hailed his poems for their distinctive voice and lyricism. But Hughes was most concerned with maintaining his vision. "We younger Negro artists," he wrote in 1926, "now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they aren't, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. If colored people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow...."
February is Black History Month.