Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 - May 22, 1967) was an African American poet, novelist, playwright, and newspaper columnist. He was born James Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was raised by his grandmother, and when he was thirteen years old he began to write poetry.

Hughes's early life prepared him well to write about humanity, for as a child and young man he lived in many places and met many different kinds of people. His years spent growing up were, altogether, not very happy, but they provided him with experiences that many people never have. It was in Lincoln, Illinois where he stayed with his mother (who had remarried a man named Homer Clark II) that he discovered books. Upon his graduation in 1919, Hughes spent a year in Mexico with his father. This made him severely unhappy. Most of the time Langston, depressed, contemplated suicide.

After this, he spent a year attending Columbia University where he studied engineering. Later as a ship's steward he traveled to West and Central Africa, and then went on to Europe.

Like many creative Americans at the time, such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, Langston Hughes spent time in Paris, France. During the height of the great gathering of minds in Montparnasse, for most of 1924, he lived at 15, Rue de Nollet.

In November 1924 he moved to Washington D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues was published in 1926. In 1929 he graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. In 1930, his first novel Not Without Laughter won the Harmon gold medal for literature. Hughes, who claimed Paul Laurence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties.

Hughes received a B.A. degree from Lincoln University in 1929, and was awarded a Lit.D. in 1943. He taught at a number of colleges.

He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of blues and jazz and the influence they had on his writing, as in "Montage of a Dream Deferred", from which a line was taken for the title of the play Raisin in the Sun.

Many of his poems are in the form of blues lyrics, such as the opening verse to "Po' Boy Blues".

His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contribution of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Langston Hughes's art reflects this deep understanding of black people. But it also expresses the love for them. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.

Much of Langston’s poetry tries to capture the rhythms of blues music, the music he believed to be the true expression of the black spirit. His published works through 1965 include nine volumes of poetry, eight of short stories and sketches, two novels, seven children's books, a number of plays, essays, and translations, and a two-volume autobiography. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1935. Hughes was inducted into the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1961.

Hughes, like many black writers and artists of his time, was drawn to the promise of socialism as an alternative to a segregated America. He travelled to the Soviet Union to participate in the making of a movie which was never filmed and travelled extensively in Central Asia in parts of the USSR which were typically forbidden to Westerners. Hughes's poetry was frequently published in the CPUSA’s newspaper and was involved in initiatives supported by communist organizations, such as the drive to free the Scottsboro Boys and support of the Spanish Republic. While involved in some socialist and communist organizations in the US like the John Reed Clubs and the League of Struggle for Negro Rights, he was more of a sympathizer than an active participant. His public support of the Soviet Union was demonstrated by his signing a statement in 1938 supporting Joseph Stalin’s purges.

He was accused of being a Communist by many on the right, but he always denied this and when asked why he never joined the Communist Party, he wrote "it was based on strict discipline and the acceptance of directives that I, as a writer, did not wish to accept." He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953 and following his appearance, he distanced himself from socialism and was rebuked for this by some on the left.

Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer in New York City.


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