James Langston Hughes was born on February 1, 1902, in Joplin, Missouri. Hughes was the only child of James Nathaniel Hughes and Carrie Mercer Hughes née Langston. The elder Hughes left soon after his son's birth, eventually settling in Mexico, where he prospered in a variety of business ventures. Young James and his mother, however, struggled to make ends meet. He spent many years living with various relatives and family friends as his mother traveled in search of work. When his mother was remarried and settled in 1914, he joined her in Cleveland, Ohio. At Central High School, he proved himself as a student and as an athlete, and began writing poetry and short fiction for the school's literary magazine.
After graduating from high school, Hughes taught English in Mexico for a year. He also became a regular contributor to the Crisis, a magazine published by the NAACP and one of the cornerstones of the early fight for civil rights. In 1921, Hughes spent a year at Columbia University in New York City. There he studied English literature and explored the city's rich social and intellectual life. He also became a regular at events sponsored by the American Socialist Society. After leaving Columbia University, Hughes supported himself and his mother—who now lived in Harlem—with a variety of menial jobs. In 1923, he signed on as a cabin boy with a freighter bound for West Africa. He traveled across Europe for the next two years, living hand-to-mouth at different times in Holland, France, and Italy. When he returned to the United States in 1925, he and his mother and a half-brother settled in Washington, D.C.
During this time of education and travel, Hughes had continued to send poetry regularly to the Crisis and other journals. He was already experimenting with sound and rhythm, looking for a way to incorporate jazz and other aspects of black culture into the genre. In 1925, his efforts were recognized with prizes from both the Crisis and Opportunity magazines. At the end of that year Hughes had his first taste of real celebrity when the poet Vachel Lindsay read some of Hughes's poems to his own audience. The morning after the reading, when Hughes came to the hotel where he worked, he was greeted by a number of photographers and reporters curious about the "Negro busboy poet." Hughes's first book, The Weary Blues, followed in 1926, aided by the first of his white patrons, critic Carl Van Vechten. The collection showcased both his experiments with style and his determination to focus on African-American life and race relations. Although the book met with considerable praise, some critics—including prominent black artists—responded harshly to Hughes's form and content. That response set a pattern for the rest of his career.
Throughout this period, Hughes published frequently in a variety of publications, both black and mainstream. He had also returned to college at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania just before the publication of The Weary Blues. In 1927, Hughes published his second book, Fine Clothes to the Jew, and co-founded a literary journal, Fire, specifically for African-American writers. In 1929, Hughes earned his bachelors degree from Lincoln University. At the end of the decade, Hughes began a significant patron-protégée relationship with the wealthy Charlotte (Mrs. Rufus Osgood) Mason, an elderly widow who often sponsored black artists. Mason supported Hughes through the composition of his first novel, Not Without Laughter, published in 1930. However, a rift developed between Mason and Hughes soon after. The relationship ultimately provided Hughes with the material for "The Blues I'm Playing."
While traveling in the Soviet Union in 1932, Hughes happened onto the book that would inspire his development as a short fiction writer—The Lovely Lady, a collection of short stories by English author D. H. Lawrence. Lawrence's directness, his irony, and his willingness to make fiction carry a social message prompted Hughes to rethink the potential of short fiction. He began composing stories right away, publishing several in magazines. More importantly, he built up the collection that would become The Ways of White Folks in 1934. The power of these stories set a standard that Hughes would continue to uphold in many subsequent volumes. One of his most popular pieces, the first of what became known as his "Simple" stories, appeared in the 1940s. This piece was significant not only for its artistic strength but also because the story was printed in the Chicago-Defender, a black-owned newspaper with a black audience. Whereas Hughes had written his earlier works primarily for a white audience, from the late 1930s onward he became known as one of the first authors to write for and enjoy a wide popularity among black readers.
As Hughes's career matured, he became more and more explicitly political both as an artist and as an individual. As a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American in 1937, he lived in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. During the rise of the Civil Rights struggle, his publications in the 1950s and 1960s addressed the political upheaval and the conditions of black life. Probably one of his most significant works, the verse collection Montage of a Dream Deferred, published in 1951, articulated the hardship and disillusionment that called for social and political change. Hughes continued to be active and prolific until his death from congestive heart failure on May 22, 1967. In the year of his death, Hughes published The Panther and the Lash: Poems of Our Times.