Meaning: “Long stone”
Other forms of the name: Langstone
For Black History Month I thought I would profile the names of some famous and influential African-Americans.
The surname Langston comes from the Old English “lang” which meant “long” and “stan” which meant stone. It has been recorded as far back as the Medieval Ages.
Langston Hughes is probably one of the most famous bearers of this name, although his real name was James Mercer Langston Hughes. He was one of the earliest people to practice jazz poetry. Langston was born in Joplin, Missouri to Caroline “Carrie” Mercer Langston and James Nathaniel Hughes. His father left the family and divorced Carrie, he then travelled to Cuba and Mexico trying to escape the racism in the United States. Langston was raised mostly by his grandmother who told him stories and taught him racial pride.
While in Grammar School Langston was elected class poet. He believed it was because of a stereotype that African-Americans have rhythm:
“I was a victim of a stereotype. There were only two of us Negro kids in the whole class and our English teacher was always stressing the importance of rhythm in poetry. Well, everyone knows, except us, that all Negroes have rhythm, so they elected me as class poet.”
Later in high school Langston wrote his first jazz poetry piece called “When Sue Wears Red”. He did not have a good relationship with his father even though he lived with him for a while in Mexico. He said “I had been thinking about my father and his strange dislike of his own people. I didn’t understand it, because I was a Negro, and I liked Negroes very much.”
He died when he was only sixty-five from abdominal surgery. His ashes are interred beneath a floor medallion in The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. The design of the medallion is an African cosmogram that is titled “Rivers”; the title is taken from one of his poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, which became his signature poem. In the center of the medallion, above his ashes, it reads, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers”.
Langston strove throughout his career to teach “black is beautiful” and to make people proud of their race.
Here is his poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:
“I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”