1902 February 1

Langston Hughes, Noted African-American Poet, Social Critic, is Born


Langston Hughes, a noted African-American poet and social critic, was born on this day. He won many awards for his poetry, including a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935, the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1960, and Honorary Doctorates from Howard University (1963) and Western Reserve University (1964).

In addition to his poetry, Hughes was a sharp social critic, particularly in a series of short prose pieces involving a character known as Simple. An ordinary African-American person, Simple commented on social and political affairs with common sense and without illusions. The best pieces were published as Simple Speaks His Mind in 1950.

In one World War II-era piece he brought up the taboo subject of inter-racial marriage, commenting on the fact that all the race relations committees never talked about race relations, meaning marriage.”Getting married,” Simple said, “is also a equal right.” His friend asked, “You do not want to marry a white woman, do you.” No, Simple replied, “but I figure some white woman might want to marry me.”

In another piece, he commented on the racism in the legal system. “I definitely do not like the Law, Simple said. “Why?,” his friend asked. “Because the Law beats my head. Also because the Law will give a white man One Year and give me Ten.”

One of his pieces criticized the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Hughes’ social commentary and associations with left-wing groups resulted in his being called before Senator Joe McCarthy’s investigating committee on March 24, 1953 (and not HUAC as some accounts put it). In the climate of the Cold War, however, Hughes recanted some of his earlier social criticisms and associations.

On October 5, 1944, Hughes was smeared by HUAC for having “affiliations” with 49 allegedly “subversive” organizations.

Read more: Langston Hughes, Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) (Many of the selections are in anthologies of Hughes’ writings.)

Read Langston Hughes poems: The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994)

Hear Langston Hughes reading his poem “The Weary Blues”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uM7HSOwJw20

Learn more about Langston Hughes at the Academy of American Poets:  http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/langston-hughes

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