Autobiography: The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

By Langston Hughes

Introduction by means of Arnold Rampersad.

Langston Hughes, born in 1902, got here of age early within the Twenties. In The mammoth Sea he recounts these memorable years within the nice playgrounds of the decade--Harlem and Paris. In Paris he was once a cook dinner and waiter in nightclubs. He knew the musicians and dancers, the drunks and dope fiends. In Harlem he was once a emerging younger poet--at the guts of the "Harlem Renaissance."

Arnold Rampersad writes in his incisive new creation to The titanic Sea, an American vintage: "This is American writing at its best--simpler than Hemingway; as basic and direct as that of one other Missouri-born writer...Mark Twain."

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They had separated shortly after I was born, because my father wanted to go away to another country, where a colored man could get ahead and make money quicker, and my mother did not want to go. My father went to Cuba, and then to Mexico, where there wasn’t any color line, or any Jim Crow. He finally sent for us, so we went there, too. But no sooner had my mother, my grandmother, and I got to Mexico City than there was a big earthquake, and people ran out from their houses into the Alameda, and the big National Opera House they were building sank down into the ground, and tarantulas came out of the walls—and my mother said she wanted to go back home at once to Kansas, where people spoke English or something she could understand and there were no earthquakes.

It was clear that Ramon in the upper bunk didn’t understand more than every tenth word of George’s Kentucky vernacular, but he kept on laughing every time George laughed—and that was often. George was talking about women, of course. He said he didn’t care if his Harlem landlady pawned all his clothes, the old witch! When he got back from Africa, he would get some more. He might even pay her the month’s back rent he owed her, too. Maybe. Or else—and here he waved one of his appendages around—she could have what he had in his hand.

So my first poem was about the longest poem I ever wrote—sixteen verses, which were later cut down. In the first half of the poem I said that our school had the finest teachers there ever were. And in the latter half, I said our class was the greatest class ever graduated. So at graduation, when I read the poem, naturally everybody applauded loudly. That was the way I began to write poetry. It had never occurred to me to be a poet before, or indeed a writer of any kind. But my mother had often read papers at the Inter-State Literary Society, founded by my grandfather in Kansas.

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