February 1 marks the beginning of Black History Month in the United States. It also marks the 100th birthday of African-American poet, playwright and author Langston Hughes.
At the MetroStage theater in Alexandria, Virginia, actors honor Langston Hughes in a production called Harlem Rose. It features works written by Langston Hughes, set to the jazz, swing and blues music of the early 20th century. Hughes loved that music, and he incorporated its expressive style into his writing. Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad explains that's one of many reasons the poet is remembered as a great innovator. "He said in the 1920s that he wanted to write like the songs he'd heard embraced by the poorest African-Americans in the northern cities," says Mr. Rampersad. "He certainly broke new ground in his depiction of life in the African-American community and the African-American world. He celebrated the common people. He did so in extremely lyrical language. He was deeply concerned at the same time with questions of social justice. So all these things combined to make him a unique figure in some ways in American literature."
Langston Hughes was a midwesterner by birth and upbringing. He was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1902, and spent much of his youth in Lawrence, Kansas. As a young man, he traveled to Africa and other places around the world. The experience gave him a broader view of the social inequalities he explored in his writing. Back in the United States, he became a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, a flowering of African-American art, music and literature that was centered in New York City's Harlem neighborhood. According to Arnold Rampersad, Langston Hughes helped shape the movement in many ways.
"His first published poem on the national scene, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, was in 1921, which means he was one of the very earliest publishing poets of the Renaissance," said Mr. Rampersad. "His first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, in 1926, that also was very timely. And he published a remarkable essay in 1926, The Negro and the Racial Mountain, and he was the poet who really steered African-American writers away from being too conventional in their devotion to poetry. In that respect, he set the tone and set the style for African-American poetry as we know it in the 20th century."
Not everyone approved of his unconventional techniques. University of Kansas professor Maryemma Graham is organizing a centennial symposium for Langston Hughes in Lawrence, where the poet once lived. She explains the symposium will honor a writer once severely attacked by mainstream critics, for the colloquial style of his writing, and for his frank depictions of African-American life.
"It made him more popular I think, because people enjoyed the fact that he didn't let mainstream criticism stop what he was doing," says Ms. Graham. "He sold books to people out of the back of his car, or on his road trips. And the other reason people loved him is that he used different venues for getting his ideas across. He wrote columns in the black newspapers, a character named Jesse B. Simple, well known around the country from the 1940s on as a very wisecracking character who had lots of things to say about America. And Hughes spoke through this character."
Langston Hughes made a recording of some Jesse B. Simple's stories, such as this excerpt: "If you want to know about my life, said Simple, as he blew the foam from the top of a newly filled glass the bartender put before him, don't look at my face, don't look at my hands, look at my feet, and see if you can tell how long I've been standing on them..." In another excerpt of a Jesse B. Simple's story, he says: "Can't you tell by these shoes I wear, not pointed, not rocking chair, not French toed, not nothing but big long, broad and flat, that I've been standing on these feet a long time and carrying some heavy burdens?"
Langston Hughes died in 1967. Maryemma Graham says the Kansas centennial celebration takes its theme from the title of a Hughes poem, Let America be America Again. "We've chosen that," she explains, "because it's one of the poems that really reflects what Hughes is all about, someone who said, 'This is a country I believe in. I love this country, but it hasn't done its best job by me and my people. But I know we can have an America that ought to be.'" The Kansas symposium will run from February 7-10 and include 86 speakers, from Asia, Africa, Australia and Europe as well as the United States. Writer Alice Walker and actor Danny Glover are among those taking part.
Maryemma Graham says Langston Hughes was an artist who wanted to break down boundaries, between races, cultures and different art forms. Now his influence crosses many boundaries as well.
Part of VOA's Black History Month series