Langston Hughes Mini-Unit

Author: Sharla Beverly

Related Topics: Music, Poetry, Civil Rights Movement, Geography, and Choral Reading

Grade Level: 5th/6th


James Langston Hughes was born in Missouri on February 1, 1902 to parents who soon separated. Langston's childhood was spent in the care of friends and relatives throughout the midwest and northeast. He moved frequently and felt abandoned.

In an attempt to deal with his loneliness, Langston began to write poetry. He was a frequent visitor to the local library. Langston believed in books more than people.

While attending high school, Langston was active in many extra curricular activities including the school magazine. Many of his published poems showed the influence of his favorite poets, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman. The themes were often of social injustices and what it meant to be black.

Realizing he couldn't depend on his parents for financial support, he began to work and save his money for college. He published his first poem in Brownies Book, a new magazine for black children. Soon Crisis, a companion magazine which targeted black adults, published several of his poems.

Crisis was published by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). It was a forum for blacks to share their struggles. The editors were Jessie Fauset and W. E. B. Du Bois. Both were among a growing number of black artists and intellectuals in Harlem, New York. Langston established his position in the group before arriving in Harlem from Mexico.

Harlem in the 1920s was the largest and most influential black community in the United States. Intelligences and the arts were the focus of change, often referred to as the Harlem Renaissance. Concerts, lectures and black only private clubs invited African Americans to migrate to Harlem.

Hughes finally arrived in New York on September 4, 1921 to attend Columbia University. Langston felt frustrated at Columbia due to the coolness of his white peers. His grades began to suffer and finally he quit and looked for a job.

Jobs were still hard to come by for most blacks. He longed to work on a ship that would sail abroad. After much persistence, he headed to Africa on a freighter. Hughes was disturbed by the African tribes' lack of political and economical freedom. The Africans considered him white because of his brown skin and straight dark hair. It was here that he met a mulatto child who was ignored by the Africans and the whites. This was a source of inspiration for his play, "Mulatto."

Hughes found work on another freighter and ended up in Paris. While there he worked at a night club that featured southern cooking and Jazz performers. While moving on to Italy, Hughes was robbed and left stranded wanting to return to the United States. He tried to get a job on a ship headed for the U.S.A., but was told they only hired whites. In this depressed state of mind he wrote, "I, Too, Sing America."

He returned to America and found the Harlem Renaissance was spreading across racial boundaries. Many black poets and authors were now published in mainstream publications. Hughes was warmly welcomed by his peers and recognized for the poetry he wrote while traveling.

Hughes began to expand his writing to plays, short stories, articles, essays and an autobiography. Jesse Semple (nicknamed "Simple") became a familiar character in his short stories which appealed to his black audience. Most people liked the way "Simple" dealt with racism using humor, honesty and determination.

In 1927, Hughes loaded his car with books and headed to the south for a poetry reading tour. This tour was to be the first of many. He had never seen the south and hoped it would help him relate to his southern black audience. His writing became a source of inspiration for blacks who lived in the most racially tense area of the country. While on tour he was scorned by whites for being a troublemaker.

Hughes realized the importance of education and received his degree from Lincoln University in 1929. As the Great Depression started, Hughes felt the financial impact along with the rest of the country.

Langston became interested in socialism during his youth. His belief that all property should be divided equally among society lead him to join the Communist party. In 1932, he went to the Soviet Union as part of a team of writers to produce a documentary. He admired the Soviet Union and saw it as a symbol of hope. Though the country was poor and struggling, Hughes noticed there was no racism or economic divisions. He wrote the poem "One More 'S' in the U. S. A." for the U. S. Communist party in 1934. In later years, his involvement with the Communist party brought him before the McCarthy Committee which was investigating the influence of communism in the United States. This was during a time of nationwide anti-communist hysteria (The Cold War). Hughes made a deal with the committee and no charges were ever filed. But the experience brought his character into question.

During World War II in 1942, Hughes was called to serve on the Writers War Board. Hughes wrote jingles to inspire the troops as well as to fight segregation such as, "Looks like by now, Folks ought to know, It's hard to beat Hitler, Protecting Jim Crow." Because of this publicity, Hughes became a familiar name in many American households. (Return to Activity 6)

Because of Hughes extensive travels overseas, he became a cultural emissary to Europe and Africa for the U.S. State Department from 1960 through 1963.

Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 in New York City, but his words still inspire each generation. The lives he affected with his words could never be numbered. He brought hope to African Americans and encouraged tolerance and understanding from whites. He blazed a trail for future black poets and earned the title of "The Black Poet Laureate."


Hughes, Langston. (1958). The Langston Hughes Reader. NY: George Braziller, Inc.

Hughes, Langston. (1956). I Wonder as I Wander. NY: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Hughes, Langston. (1940). The Big Sea.. NY: Thunder's Mouth Press.

Rummel. Jack. (1988). Langston Hughes. NY: Chelsea House Publishers


1. Students will be able to identify similarities between Hughes' poetry and music (jazz and the blues).

2. Students will become familiar with Hughes' writing style (dialect, humor, rhythm, etc.).

3. Students will understand the contributions Hughes made to society.

3. Students will understand that Hughes was influenced by his culture, travels and life experiences.

4. Students will become familiar with several of Hughes' poems and their meanings.

5. Students will be able to describe how Hughes served the United States.

Time Allotment: Approximately one and a half weeks or seven class periods.

Resources Needed:

Tape/record of The Blues (e.g. Bessie Smith)

Handouts from Appendix

8 1/2" by 11" copy of a world map

The Langston Hughes Reader by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes by Jack Rummel


1. Venn Diagram-Have students listen to an example of the blues and then read Langston Hughes' poem, "The Weary Blues" (found in Langston Hughes by Jack Rummel). The class will discuss the similarities and differences between the music and the poem (draw two large overlapping circles, label one "blues," the other "Hughes," and the overlapping area "both"). Write similarities and differences under the appropriate labels. Discuss how Langston was influenced by music. How was dialect used? Why was he called "The Jazz Poet?"

2. Think-Pair-Share-Give each student a copy of the poem "I, Too, Sing America: along with questions (see Appendix). Students will answer questions individually and then discuss in pairs. Pairs will share their answers with the whole class. Extend by having students write a poem about an issue that bothers them.

3. Role Playing-Read a short story about Jesse Semple (use "Jim Crow's Funeral" found in The Langston Hughes Reader ). Discuss how Hughes described black life. Place students in cooperative groups and instruct them to write and act out a short story using the character Jesse Semple and Hughes' style (dialect, honesty, humor, etc.). For more structure, the teacher can provide the setting and the problem (e.g. not being allowed to eat in an all white restaurant or being denied a job because he is black). Give each group a different problem and have them perform their final product for the whole class. Why do they think the short stories about Jesse Semple were a favorite among the blacks?

4. Mapping-Give each student a map of the world and the description of Hughes' travels (see Appendix). Students should mark each country he traveled to with a symbol (star, ciricle, etc.) and briefly describe the contributions made to his writing (i.e. Africa="Mulatto", France=jazz, Italy="I, Too, Sing America", The Soviet Union="One More 'S' in the U. S. A.", Cuba=musicals).

5. Choral Reading-Use the Hughes' poems "Harlem" and "Children's Rhymes" (found in The Langston Hughes Reader ) . Depending on the number of students involved, teacher should divide the poems into parts to be read by all and parts to be read by small groups. The teacher should read each poem aloud and then assign parts. Good choral reading will take practice. Encourage students to speak with feeling and emotion. After reading in choral fashion, discuss what each poem meant. How did each poem make them feel? Why did he use dialect in "Children's Rhymes?" What was Hughes trying to say?

6. Cooperative Learning-After discussing Hughes' work on the Writers War Board (share Jim Crow Jingle found in background), have groups make up a jingle that reflects the patriotism of African Americans during World War II. Extend by having groups create a poster to advertise their jingle.

7. Learning Journal- Students will write at least one important thing they learn about Langston Hughes after each activity. This is an opportunity for students to reflect on learning and make connections. Instruct students to focus on three areas of Hughes' life--his contributions to society, his style, and how he was influenced.


1. Contributions to the Venn Diagram will be informally assessed based on participation.

2. Think-pair-share will be informally assessed based on participation.

3. Short stories and role playing will be assessed for reflecting Hughes' style.

5. Maps will be assessed for accurate placement of markers and descriptions.

6. Choral reading will be assessed informally by active participation.

7. Jingles will be assessed based on reflecting Hughes' style and patriotism.

8. Journals will be read and should include Hughes' contributions, style, and influences.


Activity 2

1. Why did Hughes write this poem?

2. How do you think this poem influenced African Americans?

3. How did you think this poem influenced White Americans?

Return to Activity 2


Activity 4

Read about Langston Hughes' experiences in other countries. When you finish, locate and mark each country with a marker (star, circle, etc). Write a brief description by the marker of how each country influenced him.


After Langston dropped out of Columbia University, he worked on a freighter that sailed for Africa. While there he was deeply concerned about the African tribes' lack of political and economical freedom. He met a mulatto child who was ignored by the Africans because his one of his parents was white and the other was black. The child asked him if it was true that American people talked to mulattos. This encounter was an inspiration for his play, "Mulatto."

His next job was on a freighter that docked in France. He stayed and worked at a night club that featured southern cooking and jazz performers. Night after night, he listened to the rhythms of the bands and used them in his poetry.

Moving on to Italy, Langston was robbed on a train. Without any money, he desperately longed to return to the United States. He tried to return to the U. S. A. on a freighter, but was denied because he was black. In this depressed state of mind he wrote, "I, Too, Sing America." Eventually he found an all black ship willing to take him to the United States.

Hughes next trip lead him to Cuba and Haiti. He was looking for someone to help him write a folk opera (a singing play). He met some Cuban poets who were also using their native rhythms in their poetry. He decided to use some Latin music in his next musical.

Because of his interest in Communism, Hughes gladly accepted and offer to visit the Soviet Union and help write a documentary. He was impressed by the lack of racism and wrote the poem "One More 'S' in the U. S. A." This trip increased his interest in the U. S. Communist party.

Because of his experiences in other countries, Hughes became a cultural emissary to Europe and Africa for the U.S. State Department from 1960 to 1963. A cultural emissary is one who represents the United States in other countries.

Return to Activity 4