(1) Langston Hughes wrote about his childhood in his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940)
You see, unfortunately, I am not black. There are lots of different kinds of blood in our family. But here in the United States, the word "Negro" is used to mean anyone who has any Negro blood at all in his veins. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black. I am brown. My father was a darker brown. My mother an olive-yellow. On my father's side, the white blood in his family came from a Jewish slave trader in Kentucky, Silas Cushenberry, of Clark County, who was his mother's father; and Sam Clay, a distiller of Scotch descent, living in Henry County, who was his father's father. So on my father's side both male great-grandparents were white, and Sam Clay was said to be a relative of the great statesman, Henry Clay, his contemporary.
I was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902, but I grew up mostly in Lawrence, Kansas. My grandmother raised me until I was 12 years old. Sometimes I was with my mother, but not often. My father and mother were separated. And my mother, who worked, always travelled about a great deal, looking for a better job. When I first started to school, I was with my mother a while in Topeka. She was a stenographer for a colored lawyer in Topeka, named Mr Guy. She rented a room near his office, downtown. So I went to a "white" school in the downtown district.
At first, they did not want to admit me to the school, because there were no other colored families living in that neighbourhood. They wanted to send me to the colored school, blocks away down across the railroad tracks. But my mother, who was always ready to do battle for the rights of a free people, went directly to the school board, and finally got me into the Hamson Street School - where all the teachers were nice to me, except one who sometimes used to make remarks about my being colored. And after such remarks, occasionally the kids would grab stones and tin cans out of the alley and chase me home.
But there was one little white boy who would always take up for me. Sometimes others of my classmates would, as well. So I learned early not to hate all white people. And ever since, it has seemed to me that most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.
We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual, dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.
Heard Langston Hughes last night; he spoke at one of our nearby units - the Autoparque, which means the place where our Brigade trucks and cars are kept and repaired. It was a most astonishing meeting; he read a number of his poems; explained what he had in mind when he wrote each particular poem and asked for criticism. I thought to myself before the thing started "Good God how will anything like poetry go off with these hard-boiled chauffeurs and mechanics, and what sort of criticism can they offer?" Well it astonished me as I said. The most remarkable speeches on the subject of poetry were made by the comrades. And some said that they had never liked poetry before and had scorned the people who read it and wrote it but they had been moved by Hughes's reading. There was talk of "Love" and "Hate" and "Tears"; everyone was deeply affected and seemed to bare his heart at the meeting, and the most reticent (not including me) spoke of their innermost feelings. I suppose it was because the life of a soldier in wartime is so unnatural and emotionally starved that they were moved the way they were.
Langston Hughes, the Negro poet and playwright, is here also. I have known him for many years, having met him once in Russia and once in China. One of his "processional" dramas was produced in Madison Square Garden this past winter with a cast of 250 people. It was a pageant of the Negro race, with white much mixed up in it of course; it was a combination of singing, acting, and dancing. With all his talent, Hughes is the most American creature I've ever met. He's bedrock practical, yet you feel in him that horizonless being that absorbs and considers all things. I feel hidebound compared with him. Only certain things penetrate my hard soul. I have standards and principles and prejudices and weaknesses. Hughes looks on and listens and absorbs everything - that makes him an artist.