Refugees In America

Many people felt like refugees in their own country during the late 1940s, 50s and turbulent 60s.  One of these refugees was James Mercer Langston Hughes.

Mr. Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri to Caroline Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes. He would not have an idyllic childhood.

For you see the Hughes were a black family living in the Midwest of the United States at the turn of the 20th century.  Caroline was a school teacher.  His father was a storekeeper who had been denied his dream of being a lawyer.  He was not allowed to take the bar examination because he was black.

Sometimes after struggling for acceptance and dealing with unrealized dreams and hopes a person does desperate things.  James, Senior left his family and his country behind as he sought acceptance in Cuba and eventually Mexico where he became a cattle rancher.

Caroline struggled to find work.  The younger James lived with various relatives and friends during his formative years.

It would be in Cleveland Ohio living with his mother and stepfather, a steel worker, that the young James would discover the poetry of Carl Sandburg.  This and other contributing factors, such as his maternal grandmother Mary who instilled the oral traditions of the African Americans, set the young man on his way to find his own destiny and his own voice based on his experiences.

After high school graduation he went to Mexico to reunite with his father.  His father wanted the young man to pursue engineering at an international university.  He did not see much promise in his son attending a university in the USA.  The older James wanted his son to have opportunities which were denied him in the USA because of racism.

The younger James wanted to go to Columbia University to become a writer.  His father reluctantly relented so long as he would study engineering also, which he could use outside the USA without a problem.

Unfortunately, the younger James found Columbia University to be a hostile place because of the color of his skin.  In 1922 he dropped out with a B+ average to seek solace and acceptance in Harlem.

In 1923 he went to West Africa and Europe which motivated him.  Returning to the USA he worked various jobs until he enrolled in Lincoln University, a black college in Pennsylvania. One of his classmates was Thurgood Marshall who was destined for the Supreme Court.

After graduation in 1929 he continued to write.  He visited the Soviet Union which would be a problem for this young man down the road.  The label “Communist” would haunt him from that time onward.

In 1953 he faced the dreaded Senate Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations and Senator Joseph McCarthy.  He denied that he was a “Communist”, but he found that he was tainted with suspicions which made life difficult. He did what he could to avoid any Communist entanglements, which cost him friends and support.

Langston Hughes, poet, playwright, writer, novelist, children’s writer, and a leading advocate of what it meant to be African-American, was a remarkable man.  Mr. Hughes had prostate surgery which resulted in complications.  He died May 22, 1967 at New York’s Polyclinic Hospital.

Listed below is his poem Refugee in America:

There are words like Freedom
Sweet and wonderful to say.
On my heart-strings freedom sings
All day everyday. 

There are words like Liberty
That almost make me cry.
If you had known what I knew
You would know why. 


G. D. Williams       © 2012


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