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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
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Workshop 6: Historical and Cultural Context - Langston Hughes and Christopher Moore
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Langston Hughes
Biography
Work
Christopher Moore
Biography
Work
Interview
Joyce Hansen/ Gary McGowan
Biography
Work
Barbara Chase-Riboud
Biography
Work
Key References
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Authors and Literary Works
Biography

The poet Langston Hughes was one of the most talented, versatile, and prolific creative figures of the 20th century. An African American born in 1902, he came of age just in time for the Harlem Renaissance -- the exhilarating artistic, cultural, and political movement that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. "A poet is a human being," Langston Hughes once said. "Each human being must live within his time, with and for his people, and within the boundaries of his country." Some have called him poet laureate of black America, and the New York Times Book Review named him "one of the essential figures in American literature. His career is much larger than the body of his poetry alone." Indeed, his work encompassed poetry, short stories, plays (including a gospel music play), essays, autobiography, children's books, history, news reporting, a newspaper column, play lyrics, oratorio, cantata, opera, and libretti.

Arnold Rampersad, a Hughes biographer and the editor of his collected poems, says, "Hughes wrote a fundamentally new kind of verse -- one that told of the joys and sorrows, the trials and triumphs of ordinary black folk, in the language of their typical speech and composed out of a genuine love of these people." He infused his poetry with the rhythms or the popular music forms of the time -- jazz and blues -- and included folk materials.

Hughes was born far away from the action, in Joplin, Missouri. His father worked for a mining company, and his mother acted in amateur theatricals and wrote some poetry. The couple separated when Langston was quite young. His father moved to Mexico, while his mother took him to Lawrence, Kansas, where they lived in poverty with her mother, Mary Langston. Hughes's mother was away frequently looking for work; his grandmother was always a steadying influence on him. But young Langston felt neglected by his parents, and the world of books offered some solace. When his mother remarried, they moved to Illinois and later to Cleveland, where he attended a largely white high school. He began writing poetry, which was published in the school paper. After graduation, Hughes went to Mexico for a year to live with his father.

He attended Columbia University for a year, and then held a series of jobs, later traveling on a steamship along the west coast of Africa, living in Paris for a while, and also traveling to Italy. During this time, he was working on The Weary Blues, his first book of poetry, which was published in 1926 and reviewed favorably. His signature integration of the music of black Americans into his poetry was obvious. His focus on working-class blacks in this volume and in Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927) provoked criticism of his work in some quarters.

Hughes had defined himself stylistically; now he also took a firm stand for racial justice and artistic independence when he wrote "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," an essay that was published in The Nation in 1926. By this time he had also enrolled at Lincoln University, the historically black college from which he would graduate in 1929.

Langston Hughes's huge talent spilled over into all manner of genres. One of the most appealing to him was drama. His Mulatto (1935) survived on Broadway despite bad reviews, and he kept coming back to the stage. He was brought in by Elmer Rice and Kurt Weill to be the lyricist for Street Scene, which was a musical theater milestone when it opened in 1947. Hughes created a very popular character when he was writing a column for the black newspaper the Chicago Defender. Jesse B. Semple, known as "Simple," was a black common man-philosopher who talked about everyday life and love, often through a prism of race relations. The "Simple stories" were eventually collected into five books.

Langston Hughes was active and creative until his death from cancer in New York in 1967. "Hughes always remained loyal to the principles he had laid down for the younger black writers in 1926," concludes biographer Arnold Rampersad. "His art was firmly rooted in race pride and race feeling, even as he cherished his freedom as an artist. He was both nationalist and cosmopolitan. As a radical democrat, he believed that art should be accessible to as many people as possible... His art is generally suffused by a keen sense of the ideal and by a profound love of humanity, especially black Americans. He was perhaps the most original of African American poets and, in the breadth and variety of his work, assuredly the most representative of African American writers."

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