Tuesday marks what would have been Langston Hughes’s 108th birthday. Widely considered to be one of the most important black writers in the 20th century, Hughes is most known as the poet who cemented the Harlem Renaissance’s role as one of the most important artistic and cultural moments in modern American history. But Hughes, a lifelong rebel, wasn’t always black America’s literary darling. In 1926 he published “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” in The Nation, an essay that turned out to be a sort of blueprint for the Harlem Renaissance. In a tradition that had long been consumed by slave narratives and tales of grief, he made clear his desire to celebrate love and beauty. Hughes famously wrote:
The younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too.
That same year, he also caught hell as co-creator of the short-lived magazine “Fire!!”, in which he wrote the fictional tale of a young sex worker in Harlem. It was controversial material at the time, so much so that the NAACP and Harlem’s religious community became enraged and reportedly burned hundreds of copies of the magazine. The project eventually lost all of its financial support and had to close up shop, but not before it made Hughes, along with co-conspirators Wallace Thurman, Zora Neale Hurston, and Richard Bruce Nugent, pioneers of their era. Hughes continued to disrupt the status quo throughout his life, writing stories on queerness and social equality until his death in 1967 from complications related to prostate cancer.
So here’s to Langston, and every other renegade artist his work has helped inspire.
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