As Hughes was already scheduled to visit campus for the world premiere of the opera Esther, a speaking engagement was planned in room 100 of Gregory Hall for the following day, Monday, March 18, 1957. Immediately before the talk, introductory remarks were provided by University of Illinois English professor J. Kerker Quinn. Professor Quinn remarked on the breadth, quality, and volume of Hughes’ output over his thirty-year writing career, half-joking that “we’re delighted he found time to visit Illinois.” Quinn also emphasized that Hughes’ poems were “meant for public reading,” and that the University was lucky to hear them from the poet himself.
The 1957 lecture shared many themes with the one Hughes gave in 1945: his writing career, travels in Europe, and race relations in the United States. He regretted that he would be repeating a lot of material from his 1945 visit, but stated that “I have found out that if you don’t read the poems that students seem to have read in the anthologies or studied in college, and heard about, they are disappointed.” Hughes then joked that he hoped “that all the students who were here then have graduated by now.” He shared his experiences growing up in a series of towns in the Midwest, including Lincoln, Illinois, about 80 miles west of Urbana-Champaign, and revealed the origins of some of his better-known poems, like “When Sue Wears Red” and “Dressed Up.” Hughes also expounded on the various influences on his writing: modern poets including Carl Sandburg, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Vachel Lindsay; and the lyrical tone and rhythmic nature of African-American musical forms such as jazz and the blues.
The 1957 lecture was recorded to direct-cut disk by WILL Radio, as were many events held in Gregory Hall. Presumably WILL staff felt the event would be worthy of re-broadcast, or that copies would be in demand by WILL listeners. Although the exact attendance of the lecture is unknown, the audio recording reveals strong laughter in reaction to Hughes’ jests, indicating a large crowd. In the following audio clip, Hughes discusses a formative moment in his career as a poet, during an eighth grade class election in Lincoln, Illinois.
From Langston Hughes Guest Lecture, March 18, 1957, RS 13/6/5, Box 49, Disks 1207 and 1208, University of Illinois Archives