Black History Month at Special Collections: Langston Hughes

This February, we are celebrating Black History Month by highlighting some of the Black authors and artists that we feature in our collections. Today I want to acknowledge poet, novelist, and activist, Langston Hughes.

Hughes was a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, his work known for capturing snapshots of daily life for Black Americans. Hughes work was greatly influenced by his grandmother, Mary Patterson Langston who herself was an outspoken activist.

At Columbia University he studied engineering but soon left due to racial prejudice and a stronger interest in the culture and creativity of his community. He found his passion in poetry, inspired by the rich culture of Harlem. His work sought to cover the whole spectrum of the Black experience.

He later enrolled in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and after completing his degree, he returned to Harlem and lived there for the remainder of his life. In his lifetime, Hughes published more than 50 separate works including novels, poetry collections, children’s books, and plays.

One of the texts in our collection was co-authored by Hughes, entitled The Sweet Flypaper of Life. This text is a perfect example of Hughes body of work in that what it seeks to encapsulate is a simple story about people, as told with a familiar tone. It represents day-to-day life in Harlem with stories and pictures from a perspective of love for Harlem and an understanding of the people who live there. The text itself is a poem detailing the lives of the characters accompanied by black and white photographs of the people of the neighborhood taken by Roy DeCarava. With the casual and familiar tone it’s written in, it is like a documentary in book form.

Another text in our collection, One-way Ticket, is a signed anthology featuring poems addressing struggles within the Black community, sometimes with brevity and other times with grave reality. This text is complete with illustrations by Jacob Lawrence, a fellow artist of the Harlem Renaissance.

Our last text of Hughes is a 1942 first edition signed copy of Shakespeare in Harlem, a collection of poems, many of which were featured in magazines. In Hughes’s own words, this book is:

[Transcript: A book of light verse. Afro-Americana in the blues mood. Poems syncopated and variegated in the colors of Harlem, Beale Street, West Dallas, and Chicago’s South Side.

Blues, ballads, and reels to be read aloud, crooned, shouted, recited, and sung. Some with gestures, some not –as you like. None with a far-away voice.]

This anthology also contains illustrations by artist E. McKnight Kauffer.

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