Poetry News

How Old Is Langston Hughes?

By Harriet Staff
Langston Hughes

New York Times reporter Jennifer Schuessler discusses a recent discovery by Topeka poet Eric McHenry that led to an important revelation about Langston Hughes. "Hughes, a leading light of the Harlem Renaissance whose work aimed to capture the whole of the African-American experience, was only 18 when he wrote ['The Negro Speaks of Rivers']," Schuessler writes. "Or was he?" From there: 

Recently, a writer’s casual online search for one of his own ancestors accidentally led to a wealth of unknown documentation of Hughes’s early life, including evidence of a different birth year.

Here’s a look at one example of how digitized newspaper databases are throwing open new doors of discovery — and at what difference that year might actually make.

Late one night, on the internet…

Hughes, the story has long gone, was born near midnight on Feb. 1, 1902, in Joplin, Mo.

“The date of his birth he would take on faith,” the scholar Arnold Rampersad wrote in his landmark 1986 biography, since Missouri law at the time did not require that births be recorded. It’s also the date given on the cosmogram at the Schomburg Center.

But one evening earlier this summer, Eric McHenry, a poet who teaches at Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., stumbled on evidence that the birth year was wrong.

Mr. McHenry was having dinner with a fellow poet who also grew up in Topeka. Both had ancestors who had been active in populist state politics in the late 19th century, and they wondered if the two men had known each other.

Later that night, a Google search led Mr. McHenry to newspapers.com, and an 1894 article about his friend’s great-great-grandfather speaking at his great-great-great-grandfather’s memorial service. “It was kind of a mind-blowing moment,” Mr. McHenry said.

Intrigued by the possibilities of the site — one of a number that has digitized and made available millions of pages of historical newspapers — he started entering the names of notable African-American cultural figures with Topeka roots, including Coleman Hawkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, the artist Aaron Douglas and Hughes.

“I was just bouncing from name to name,” he said.

Read more at the New York Times.

Originally Published: August 10th, 2018