The Big Sea and Me & Langston Hughes


I am currently enrolled in a World Literature Class and our topic is six degrees of Langston Hughes.  Yes, Yes, we are all familiar with his poetry, but are you familiar with his life? There are so many people he touched and influenced as well as worked with during his life.

No worries, I am going to blog you through facts, dates, famous people you didn’t even know he knew and a few he hooked up with and helped make them famous.

I have so much to tell you, but first, I am trying to get a grip on what I am reading about Langston. This man lived an amazing life and although many throughout history felt let down by this autobiography, I found it uplifting and tongue in cheek. There are powerful sections that I will be delving deeper into as I go along, and you can follow these sections on my website.

Climb aboard with me as we set sail and head out to the Big Sea where Langston finds out, he is really, only a small fish in a really, really big pond.

Hughes and Negro Speaks of Rivers

This is probably the most well know piece of poetry written by Langston Hughes.  It was first published in Crisis in June of 1921, which put Hughes at the ripe age of 19 years old. Crisis was the official publication of the NAACP started by W.E.B. Dubois.  In The Big Sea (p 55) the first autobiography written by the poet, he describes the composition of the piece. As he is riding in a Pullman, he looks out the window of the car to see the Mississippi River. This brought on a bevy of emotions as he thought about what it mean to be sold down the river, during the worst times in human bondage.  This also led him to give serious thought to other rivers in Negro history, the Congo, the Niger, the Nile in Africa. He says, “Then the thought came to me, ‘I’ve known rivers.’”

So a thought came to me.  I wrote my first short story when I was 9 years old.  It was probably one of the worst ideas ever penned to paper, but I know words.  I know stories. For some dumb reason, I, in my heart filled with words, believed that if Hughes could do it at 19 with such a limited scope on life, that I, a seasoned parent, writer and smart Alek pontificator, could easily recreate his work in my own words. How hard can it be? My piece is going to be The Writer Speaks of Stories.

Attempt 1 The Writer Speaks of Stories

I’ve known stories;

I’ve known stories older that the voyage of dark bodies

       rowing in the base of ships carrying the storytelling tradition.

My pages have grown thick with stories.

On the banks of the Senegal where mothers gathered babes 

I collected bits and pieces of tales which touched my soul.

I stared at old structures which once did not allow my entrance

I read their words as they charcoaled them on scraps of paper

      Written by candlelight as the slavers cracked the whip/

I bathed wrote

I built scribbled

I looked read

I heard listened

Well, that went horribly wrong. First round to you Mr. Hughes.

I am going to try this until I get it right.

Attempt 2 The Writer Speaks of Stories

I’ve known stories;

I’ve known stories older that the voyage of dark

     bodies rowing in the base of ships.

My pages have grown thick with stories.

I have scribbled with charcoal by candlelight when the slavers slept.

I wrote syllables on slate slivers to teach the next generation our tales

I belted out hymns to lift the words to Heaven so a God that was not my own could hear my cry.

I have read the words which scuttled across the pages of lost traditions and

misplaced understanding opening the doors of hope.

I’ve known stories.

Okay, we are getting better, but that one is too alliterative and filled with flowery language that actually says, well, nothing. Second round to you again Mr. Hughes.

Attempt 3 The Writer Speaks of Stories

I’ve known stories;

I’ve known stories rich in their vernacular as they

scuttle across generations of grandmother’s laps.

My words have grown wide with stories.

I have scribbled in dark rooms when the tears overcame me.

I wrote on napkins in coffee bars while my stomach curdled with acid.

I gave a vanilla pages in large libraries when the

       doors finally permitted my admission.

Something is not right in this section.

I have penned by candlelight when the slavers slumbered.

I created illegal classrooms to share the words with children.

I created a classroom in the church to share the alphabet so others could read.

I gazed upon schoolhouse which would not allow me a seat.

I have wrote the words which scuttled across the pages of lost traditions and misplaced understanding opening the doors of hope.

I’ve known stories.

Okay, I am getting better, but that one a hot mess and filled with confusing messages that actually says, well, nothing. Third round to you again Mr. Hughes.

I am now taking a different approach.  I know what I want to say.  I think I know how I want to say it.  Here is the final pass.

Attempt 4 The Writer Speaks of Stories

I’ve known stories;

I’ve known stories sketched onto cave walls and pressed

      by stylus into the soft clay of cuneiform tablets.

My book has grown thick with stories.

I inked on papyrus scrolls when the Gods were asleep,

I penned by candlelight when the slavers slumbered.

I scribbled down words when the tears overcame me and forced a rising above my sorrow.

I wrote words which scuttled across the pages when storytellers lost phrases on chain gangs,

        and I’ve held the traditions when other buckled at the misprinting of false truth.

I’ve known stories.

Epic, evolving stories.

My book has grown thick with stories.

That was harder than I thought.  Kudos to you Mr. Hughes to write such an epic piece at 19 years old.  I struggled with the last one, and I am still not satisfied.

I would like to encourage you to try as well; share with me your triumphs.


Meditations in the Meanings: Hughes’ Storytelling of African Women

          Upon reading The Big Sea, one of the primary images which sticks with me long after reading Langston’s words, is his means of storytelling, especially the lives of the women of Africa. At times, I am infuriated at the flat tone in which he relays interactions with the women. He describes the scenes in which he encounters almost as if he is far removed from what he is actually seeing.

The first instance, which struck me as odd was the meeting of a young mixed-blood young man name Edward in an English Colony in Africa.  Upon meeting Edward, Mr. Hughes was invited to a modest hut where Edward and his mother resided.  Hughes describes Edward’s mother as “She was young and not unbeautiful, in African clothing, a flowered cloth wrapped about her body.  She offered me coconut juice to drink and the only chair (p 104).” From this point, he refers to this woman as an object which is ironic because she has already been objectified by the English Lord in which she served as housekeeper.

The Englishman, obviously took advantage of having the young African woman under his roof.  When the English Lord was in Africa, Edward and his mother lived behind the colony walls under his protection, but once he left, both Edward and his mother were thrown out of the protection of the colony.  Since she has lain with a white man and produced a child, none of the African men will have her and none of the African children will accept Edward as one of their own.

There is an entire paragraph dedicated to Edward and his desire to either go to England to find his father or to America where other Mulatto’s like himself are accepted.  Hughes makes the comment, “Poor Kid!” Edward writes to him, but Hughes never writes back because he doesn’t know what to say.  After reading the section, I did not know what to say either. 

My heart is bleeding for the African woman who, more than likely, was forced to give or subjugate herself to a man in which she was employed.  Left or rather discarded like a piece of trash after fulfilling a need of men who moved on as if she were nothing more than something to do.  I don’t say that easily without adding something more substantial to this point.

As we move deeper into his initial travels into Africa, he speaks in the chapter titled Sailor’s Holiday (pg 107) where he mentions two little African girls, all alone, rowed out to the ship hoping to make a few dollars.  The night watchmen helped the girls on board.  The others woke up, knocking on everyone’s doors letting their fellow shipmates know there were women on board.  These sailors had no money, but the young girls did not know it. One of the girls was taken by the boson to his cabin to have a private party while the other girl was thrown onto the floor.  I nearly cried as reading the following words.

“Someone threw the girl down on the floor on a blanket… stripped her of flowered cloth.  She lay there naked and held up her hands. Mon-eee! Mon-eee! (p108).”

The next line read, “Thirty men crowded around, mostly in their underwear…and waited for their turn (p 108).”

I cannot even imagine the state of these young women when these men were done with them.  I understand there was nothing Mr. Hughes could do to save or protect the young ladies, because you can never take a bone from a hungry dog, but what totally numbed my head was that he said he eventually went to bed because he was tired of hearing her cries each time one of the men got up and another took their turn.

Here is the rub. As we move even further into the book, there is another instance in the chapter Burutu Moon, where Mr. Hughes encounters English soldiers bartering with an old woman for a young girl said to be a virgin.  The old lady wants 4 Pounds.  The British soldiers feel that is too much.

Too much?

You deflower a child for 4 Pounds and ruin her life, then you leave. These British soldiers, like Edward’s father and the men on Hughes’ ship are all going to leave.  They come in, take advantage of these women and then depart, returning home to their lives.

Once these predatory men leave, these women have no option for a better life as mothers with a role in their respective villages.  Their children will be ostracized, much like Edward, and left at the mercy of whatever falls their way. I know Mr. Hughes cannot fix these issues because, he like the African women are on the outside looking in.

I guess, what I am attempting to say, is that there is so much more to these stories and Hughes moves on to the next instance, as if he is crafting together bits and pieces of sonnets that he is collecting. The poor women are being exploited, not only by the British, but also by Hughes.  He is re-telling their pain, profiting from it, and leaving.  I can almost assure you that he never went back to look up Edward or do anything to help alleviate his mother’s pain.  True, he had enough to deal with in his own mother, but where do we draw the line?

At some point, we have to stop giving up and turning a deaf ear when we no longer want to hear the cries of those who need our help. Yes, he told their stories, but in some way, there must have been a means to bring some form of relief to the exploitation of the women on the dark-continent. If nothing more, rally the men in the village to not allow these issues to happen to their daughters or their sisters.  When we stop helping those who bring forth life, we no longer find any value the life that we live. Women and children should be protected and not allowed to be used as sexual napkins for randy men with no value for anything other than something in which to pass the time.


Meditations in the Meanings: Hughes’ and the Monkey on His Back

While in Africa, in a port in the Congo, Hughes acquired a monkey.  Yes, this was well before the enactment of customs and quarantine laws of animals. For the mere costs of 3 shillings and a few items of clothing, Mr. Hughes acquired a red monkey. He named the animal Jocko.

The entire story of Jocko to me is symbolic of two things, the immaturity of Hughes and the desire of Hughes to be loved.  The irony is that the monkey which rested upon his shoulder, soon became a monkey that rode his back, because the man, the poet, the mystery that was Langston Hughes, was always in need of money.  The once chance he had to make some real money, would have been to sell the rare red monkey he brought back to US.  I laughed as I read his words about Jocko.

Initially, the wild monkey bit Hughes as he tried to tame it, then as a relationship developed, the monkey loved to be in his owner’s arms and would bite Hughes when he tried to put him down.  The term Hughes used was “out of love for me (p181).” Yet, it was always Hughes’ intention to take the monkey back to the US to give to his little brother.  A little brother who resided with his mother and step father who was always in and out of a job.

The train of thought with Jocko is why I saw the symbolism of the immaturity of Hughes.  Ownership of an animal is the same as having a child. The amount of care necessary for the emotional well-being of a child becomes about more than having a roof over its head and food and water in its belly.  On the ship during the voyage home, the crew was rapidly running out of both food and fresh water. Yet, Hughes continued to move forward with this idea that Jocko would be a great pet for his brother, not taking into account the cost of feeding and caring for the monkey by a woman who barely had time nor the desire to feed and take care of him as her own child. Secondly, Hughes, upon his return to his beloved Harlem, underwent hardships finding a means in which to put a roof over he and Jocko’s head.  No one wanted a monkey on the premises.

Eventually Hughes had to leave Jocko with a boarding facility. “I hated to leave him there in a strange place… but the women in Harlem didn’t seem to like him (pg.  108).

He boarded the monkey for two weeks and ate in fifteen cent dining rooms and placed newspapers in his coat and shoes to stave off the cold. He stood in line with peanuts in his pockets so he would have something to eat as he waited to see a show he could barely afford. This whole process that he is undergoing is illogical.  I read the section in disbelief.

If, you are taking your mother money and another mouth to feed, then why are you spending all of the money knowing the monkey also requires food and care?

I am not hypothesizing, but honestly trying to wrap my mind around his train of thought. The shop owners realized that the monkey, upset with his current surroundings, developed digestive disorders when upset. A special diet was constructed for Jocko which totaled $30 for room and board.  Hughes, unbelieving of this, took the monkey home to his mother.  “My mother hated Jocko and because he knew it… he would tease her… and pull at her apron strings.”

In my heart, I sincerely believe that Hughes wanted his mother to love Jocko.  If she could love this gift, she could thereby love him.

The landlord where his mother lived hated the monkey.  The minute Hughes left the monkey, the animal became distressed and his step father took it to a pool hall where the animal pooped all over the billiards table.  This cost the stepfather money he did not have.  Jocko cost Hughes money he did not have to spare.  He even had to trade a new pair of pants to ensure transport on the train for him and Jocko because he had not enough money.  Therefore the monkey on Hughes’ back is money. He is always in need of it and never has enough.  I say that he was immature because Jocko was worth more as a commodity than as a pet.  The moment he was away, his mother sold the monkey.

A mature person would have known that his mother was going to sell the monkey; they were not show people. The two weeks of boarding the monkey in New York would have been better served if Hughes had negotiated with the shop owner to sell the animal.  His mother would have loved him more if he had brought her home money instead of the monkey.


Meditations in the Meanings: Working His Living

By the age of a mere twenty five years old, Langston Hughes had traveled to Africa, Italy and France with no more than a few dollars in his pocket. This is amazing to me.  At a time in history when the black man was more of a commodity than an intellectual or a part of the intelligentsia, this man from a meager background had a chance to see the world.  Well, not initially, his first job was as a mess boy aboard a ship bound for nowhere.

His first job was aboard a non-seaworthy ship leftover from the First World War. It was aboard this ship that Hughes wrote The Weary Blues. This was also the same winter that he received his first letter from Alain Locke and a luncheon invite from Jessie Fauset, editor of Crisis.  But his first job that winter upon a non-sailing boat gave him the skill set required to be a very efficient messboy which earned him a job on the next vessel which was actually on a six month sailing to Africa.  The ship stopped first in the Azores and the Canary Island before reaching the dark-continent. 

In Africa, along the west coast, he visited 32 ports (p 106).  These stops included the Ivory Coast, Calabar, Kamerun, Boma in the Congo, Lagos, Niger, Dakar, Senegal, the Bight of Benin and the Slave Coast.  I am listing these because at each stop he learns more about colonization, misappropriation and the violation of Africa. Even in Africa, Jim Crown laws were in effect with signs posted which read Europeans Only. Ironically, it was racism, which saved Hughes on his second trip to sea.  A steward who only wanted an all white crew fired Hughes.  The same boat hit a mine in the water and the crew was killed.

Still the ever present monkey on his back of no money, he climbed aboard a raggedy ship leaving Hoboken heading to the West Indies. Next he went to Rotterdam and Holland in 1923.  He sailed back to New York and again for Rotterdam, but he was convinced something was wrong with the ship.  In his pocket he had $25 and took a train to Paris. Keep in mind, he does not speak French.  Hughes does speak Spanish, and in Paris he managed to get a job in a nightclub. A white nightclub with black entertainers who drew white crowds.

The club in which he worked was shutting down and he followed two co-workers, Romeo & Luigi.  On a 3rd class fare3 he was able to travel and visit Italy, where many of the residents had never seen a black man in person. Dezenzano was a small post card village where he spent a week as the village amusement.  While there he received a letter from Alaine Locke, who was also in Italy, so he traveled to Verona and then on to Venice, where Dr. Locke knew the city like the back of his hand.  On his way from Venice, he was robbed and ended up stranded in Genoa.

Hungry, almost starved to death, he sent a letter to Crisis for $20 to get him back home.  He managed to get on board as a work away, meaning he would draw no pay, but it would get him back to the US. He sailed from Genoa to Livorno then on to Naples.  He stopped in Valencia, did some sight-seeing in Sicily.  Halfway across the Atlantic, he washed the Chief Mate’s shirt for a quarter, so he could have a nickel to catch the subway to get him back to Harlem.

I know this sounds odd that I would list most of his travels through his younger  years, but with a bit of dumb luck, he managed to see a great deal of Europe and Africa as a black man not affiliated with a university or a family of wealth. In span of ten months spent in Europe, he arrived in Paris with $7, saw France, Italy and Spain and toured the Mediterranean, coming back to the US with a quarter in his pocket. In his own words he tells the reader, “I came home with a quarter, so my first European trip cost me exactly six dollars and seventy-five cents! (p 201)”

Really, when you sit back and think about it all, that is pretty flippin’ amazing.