Black History Month

By: Kierstin Rhinier

As Black History Month starts its celebration for the 2012 year we, at the Rohrbach Library, want to bring you interesting facts about African-American authors, as well as other fun facts about the month. In honor of celebrating the month, we are also going to take the time, today, to note the birthday of Langston Hughes, a great African-American poet.

Born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri, Hughes was part of an abolitionist family. He did not stay in Joplin all of his life, but instead moved around and continued to do so through his adult years. Hughes began writing poetry in 8th grade where he was elected the class poet. Once he got to high school, he also got involved in the school newspaper and yearbook and began writing creatively, branching out into short stories and plays. He was influenced through his school years by Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman.

Due to the major influence of his father, Hughes attended Columbia University where he studied Engineering. His father did not believe that he could make a living based only on writing, but Hughes dropped out with a B+ average because of racial prejudice and an interest in the neighborhood of Harlem, where he spent most of his time. Before he dropped out of college, Hughes had his first poem published in Brownie’s Book in 1921. The poem was called “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”

While Hughes was in Harlem, his poetry took on a rhythmic blues sound, which he referred to as “The Weary Blues.” During the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes wrote even more works, and this was the time period of his life that he was most published. Langston Hughes’ dream was to be a poet, but was often called a black poet instead. He did not let this stop him from writing and achieving great things; “No great poet has ever been afraid of being himself,” he said. He lived his writing career to the fullest completing many different genres of works. From books of poems, novels and autobiographies, plays, short stories, children’s poetry, magazine articles, and even operas, Hughes spent the rest of his life writing as many things as he could. On May 22, 1967 Hughes died from a complication during surgery that was related to his prostate cancer.

Some other key African-American poets or verse writers were Harriet Tubman and Maya Angelou. Tubman is not normally marked down in the history books as a poet, but the slave songs she sang and taught others while helping them get to the Underground Railroad are a big piece of history. “The Gospel Train” was often a nickname for the Underground Railroad to escape notice from plantation owners or overseers. She sang simple hymns that had meanings of endurance and the belief in a better afterlife. These songs allowed the slaves to communicate with each other as well as give important information about areas to avoid or use caution in.  Tubman was also known as “Moses” and helped to rescue over 120 people by creating hymns that got slaves to freedom.

Maya Angelou has a passion in all the arts, including, dance, music, performance, and poetry. Angelou is most known for her poetry as well as her most famous piece of published work, “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which came out in 1970. Before the publication of this book, Angelou worked with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. for organizations and conferences in America. The discrimination that Angelou experienced in her life, and especially when she lived for a short time in Stamps, Missouri, helped to mold her faith and values of African-American families, communities, and cultures. She has published over 30 different works since the beginning of her career in performance and writing.

To read some of these different authors’ works, visit Rohrbach Library. If you would like to read more about Black History Month, consult U.S. Black History for facts and history.
Image Credit: Mapping the African American Past

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