A risen presence

Langston Hughes: The late poet is celebrated for his portrayal of the African-American experience.

March 04, 2002

WHEN THE Academy of American Poets sought nominees to grace commemorative stamps, Langston Hughes far outpolled other lyric notables.

The popularity of the Harlem Renaissance poet is but one example of, in the words of biographer Arnold Rampersad, Hughes' "risen presence in the national culture."

His poems, novels, short stories, plays, librettos, translations and essays - he covered the Spanish Civil War for The Afro-American newspaper in Baltimore - are being reissued in a 17-volume collection of his works, the first ever. Hughes' "risen presence" is indeed among us.

In university symposia from Lawrence, Kan., (Hughes' boyhood home) to New Haven, Conn., (Yale University houses Hughes' papers), and in tributes from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker to jazz great Lionel Hampton, Hughes' contributions to the American literary pantheon are being extolled in this, his centenary year.

Born Feb. 1, 1902, James Mercer Langston Hughes was a lonesome boy, left by his mother and raised by his grandmother. Her stories of his abolitionist ancestors stirred his social conscience and his literary pursuits. He discovered the world beyond his poor Kansas home through books until he set off on his own worldly exploits.

At age 19, he published his first poem, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," a 13-line lyric of immense power penned as he crossed the Mississippi. Though he delivered flowers, worked as a farm hand, crewed on an ocean freighter and washed dishes in the jazz clubs of Paris, he aspired only to write stories about his people, "about Negroes that people in far away lands would read" even after his death.

Indeed, just last month, Andrea Jackson, a teacher at Northwood Elementary, used Hughes' plainspoken verse to lead her fifth-graders on a journey of self-discovery as vast and varied as the poet's travels.

His poetry illuminates the experiences of African-Americans, their cultural history, the struggles and triumphs of those who came before, the resolve in declaring, "I, too, am America."

Langston Hughes, dead now 35 years, is still teaching America's children that no dream need be deferred.

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