Memoir Depicts Life of Negro Poet


The Big Sea

By Langston Hughes

Copyright 1940


Through a series of essays, this well-known Negro author tells the story of his life. He describes growing up in Kansas during the early 20th century where his mother waited tables to support the family. His father left for Mexico where he eventually got rich. Hughes talks about how as a boy, he pretended to be saved at a revival meeting to please his aunt with whom he was staying at the time.

Before his senior year in high school and again after graduation, he spent time with his father in Mexico. He describes how he was disillusioned with his father’s big dreams for him and his ineptness at figures. He also explains how he ended up teaching English to Mexican students and how he eventually persuaded his father to pay his tuition at Columbia University in New York. After a year in college, he dropped out and signed onto various ships. He describes his travels to Africa, France, and Italy with periodic bouts at home with his family. In Paris, he worked as a chef and waiter and met musicians, dancers, and other entertainers.

In the 1920’s, after losing his passport in Italy and working his way home, he decided to go back to college, this time at Lincoln University near Philadelphia. He describes life at this black college with all white faculty and the black society in Harlem where he spent many of his vacations. He did some traveling in the south and gives his impressions of how Negros were treated there as opposed to New York and Washington D.C. where his family eventually re-located.

All the while, he wrote poems and stories which were published in various periodicals and a novel. He explains what inspired many of his poems and provides excerpts.

After he graduated from Lincoln University, a white patron offered to provide financial support while he published his novel. After the book was released, he had a falling out with the rich woman when he couldn’t write anything that pleased her. He also describes another fall-out he had with a fellow author he met in Harlem over a play on which they collaborated but was never produced. In the end, he describes his determination to make a living as a writer.

The recording of this book I downloaded from Audible contains a new introduction written and read by Arnold Rampersad, in which he provides a lengthy synopsis of the book plus excerpts. I found this interesting but a bit redundant after reading the book. As far as I was concerned though, Dominic Hoffman, the book’s narrator, was Langston Hughes.

Since February is Black History Month, a friend recommended this book, and I’m glad she did. It reminded me of another book I was required to read in high school, Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, in which the white author describes how he disguised himself as a Negro in order to better understand the black experience in the south. Unlike Hughes, Griffin could walk away from being black, although he was ostracized when his book was published. Hughes had many of the same experiences Griffin describes. I think The Big Sea should also be required reading. The more we can expose our young people to the atrocities of the early 20th century, perhaps the more tolerant of minorities and intolerance of racists they will be when they grow up.


Author Abbie Johnson Taylor

We Shall Overcome

How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver

That’s Life: New and Selected Poems

My Ideal Partner: How I Met, Married, and Cared for the Man I Loved Despite Debilitating Odds

Click to hear an audio trailer.

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