Inside “The Big Sea”

A Look at the Socio-Political Implications of Langston Hughes’ Autobiography

“You see, unfortunately, I am not black…. In Africa, the word is more pure. It means all Negro, therefore black.” (Hughes 11)

So begins Langston Hughes’ flashback into his childhood in The Big Sea, the autobiography that narrates his life and times until the end of the Harlem Renaissance in the early 1930s. Throughout the autobiography, Langston grapples with the concept of race and its implications on the shaping of his family, education, and identity as both a writer and an individual.

“The Big Sea” chronicles not only the life of Langston Hughes but also the life of the Harlem Renaissance, or that time when the Negro was “en vogue.”

Born John Mercer Langston Hughes to James Nathaniel Hughes and Caroline Mercer Langston in Joplin Missouri in 1902, Hughes grew up conscious of the intricacies of his race. Both of his parents were mixed. Both of James Nathaniel’s parents were mulatto. Caroline’s mother was a mixture of Indian, white, and French heritage. His maternal grandmother’s first husband had married Sheridan Leary, a white abolitionist who was killed following John Brown in the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Her second husband (also white) was Hughes’ grandfather and the brother of John Mercer Langston, a Virginia Congressman who became the first Dean of the Law School at Howard University.

But Hughes was born at a time when one drop of black blood was enough to classify a person as black. The 1896 Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case upheld the separating of races, no matter how mixed a person may be. By many textbook accounts, Plessy is described as an “octoroon,” or 7/8s black, and shoemaker in Louisiana. His physical appearances were that of a white male. However, because his parents possessed black attributes, his birth certificate classified him as a person of color.

Prior to President Rutherford B. Hayes’ removal of the troops in the Reconstructive south, New Orleans was a successfully integrated city. The public school system was desegregated and even had a few African-American teachers. Whites and blacks were able to interact and marry inter-racially. But with President Hayes’ acceptance of the presidency came the imposition of Jim Crow Laws, one of the earliest being the Sleeping Car law that was passed in 1890. This law required a separate train car exclusive to whites.

The city of New Orleans greatly opposed this law and attempted to combat it. To do so, they hired Plessy, who—by all appearances looked white—to purchase a ticket and sit in the white-only car. It was arranged for him to be arrested as a person of color riding in the segregated car. He expected the Supreme Court to rule in his favor. However, the Supreme Court upheld the decision, ultimately establishing the “separate but equal” rule.

By the time Hughes was born, however, many African-Americans were aware that, though separate, the railcars, schools, and more were certainly not equal. It is because of this that his father decided to move to Mexico, where African-Americans weren’t forced to live as second-class citizens. “My father wanted to go away to another country, where a colored man could get ahead and make money quicker,” Hughes said. (15)

But even while living in another country, Hughes’ father couldn’t escape the stereotypes of blacks. He internalized them and spent his life overseas trying to prove those stereotypes wrong instead of enjoying the life around him. “How can you have fun with the color line staring you in the face?” his father asked (Hughes 62)

Although both of Hughes’ parents sought a better life and higher education for their son, they employed different methods.

To separate himself from others Negros, James would often put his and other minority races down. James regurgitated all of the stereotypes he sought to escape from in America. When Hughes visited his father during his teenage years, his father’s rejection of African-Americans filled Hughes with disdain.

Although Hughes’ mother remained in the United States, she also wanted a better life for her son. When Hughes began school in Topeka, Kansas, his mother refused to have him bussed to the colored school in another district, since there was none in the area. “My mother, who was always ready to do battle for the rights of a free people, went directly to the school board,” recounted Hughes (14). Hughes was then allowed to attend the white school in his neighborhood.

The social climate of Hughes’ educational experiences was also affected by his race. Mixed though he was, Hughes was considered Black by everyone in America. One of his teachers early on commented on his being colored. But Hughes noticed that there were some white people who were kind. “I learned early not to hate all white people….most people are generally good, in every race and in every country where I have been.” (Hughes 14)

That belief would transcend his childhood and become a part of his adulthood as well. Though a race conscious social activist, Hughes’ closest friends and supporters often tended to be white. In his recollection of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes often mentioned that most of the positive reviews of the artists and poets of the times came from white critics and newspapers. The black critics often did not like the art of the time.

This is probably due to the times. The Harlem Renaissance, described by Hughes as “when the Negro was in vogue” (223), spanned across the 1920s, a mere 60 years after slavery was abolished. Many of the African-American intellectuals at the time believed that the Black artists should focus on creating for a purpose rather than simply for pleasure.

As Alain Locke put it in 1926, the Harlem Renaissance represented the time when “Negro life [seized] its first chances for group expression and self-determination.” (http://www.history.com/topics/harlem-renaissance) Many intellectuals at the time felt the artists should create art that would propel African Americans as a whole to the same social status as whites.

Before the Harlem Renaissance, Black writings were mainly narratives, speeches, and other works that were geared to push typically an equal-rights agenda. When writers such as Georgia Douglas Johnson, who wrote on themes of loneliness, love, and the role of women, began writing less about race consciousness and more about personal issues, many black intellectuals were disturbed.

W. E. B. du Bois and other black intellectuals during the Harlem Renaissance were unimpressed with some of the works produced during the Harlem Renaissance

In Johnson’s instance, she recounted to fellow writer Anna Bontemps how someone once told her that she had no feeling for her race. She even began one of her collection of works with a forward from W.E.B. du Bois, who gave her writings an unflattering review. (Jean, washingtonart.com) However, though the intellectuals didn’t like her, she was still well received by readers and white critics.

Hughes was no different. Though many of his works, including “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” had black themes, his vernacular was sometimes too ethnic, too real, for black critics. For example, his poem “Red Silk Stockings” was taken literally. “The Negro critics and many of the intellectuals were very sensitive about their race in books. (And still are.) In anything that white people were likely to read, they wanted to put their best foot forward, their politely polished and cultural foot—and only that foot.” (Hughes 266)

Hughes concedes that there was a valid reason for the intellectuals to feel that way. The black race had long been looked down upon by whites that they felt it necessary for all examples of blacks in art should be positive and uplifting to the race, no matter if they didn’t provide an authentic account of the race.

Hughes recounts a review by Eustace Gray, a black intellectual of the time, in the Philadelphia Tribune: “Our aim ought to be to present to the general public, already mis-informed both by well-meaning and malicious writers, our higher aims and aspirations, and our better selves.” (Hughes 267) But, though Hughes understood, he could not give the intellectuals what they desired. He could only write describing the people he grew up with, and he didn’t feel they were a bad representation to the race at all, unpolished though they may be.

As both a writer and an individual, Hughes would not allow his skin to obligate him to constantly promote the positive aspects of his race. Though he had traveled much and had experienced time overseas, Hughes did not relate to the upper class well. He couldn’t live up to the expectations of finer living, placed upon him by his father when he was younger and his colleagues in his later years.

To put it simply, Hughes did not fit for long anywhere.

He noticed this when visiting his father during his childhood years. His father wanted him to be a businessman, to go to school overseas or to Columbia, and to manage the family business. But, try as he might, Hughes simply wasn’t good with numbers. He eventually tried school at Columbia but, though he loved the city, he hated the school so he dropped out. Even when traveling overseas, Hughes found he didn’t belong. In Africa, he was considered a white man because of his mixed heritage and the blending of his features. As Hughes interacted with his Harlem Renaissance colleagues, he was often aware that, with all his traveling, he wasn’t as cultured as some of the people he spent time with. For the longest, he didn’t even own a suit to attend receptions.

Though Hughes doesn’t say it, his inability to fit in may be why he embraced his blackness the way he did, somewhat casually. He was by no means ashamed of his race but he didn’t need to cling to his race for purpose either. He did not feel compelled to write always with an underlying political agenda of promoting black esteem. He didn’t greatly dislike whites either. Although he didn’t care for the racism or the Jim Crow laws of the time, Hughes didn’t feel compelled to write anti-white America pieces either.

Hughes had actually experienced more support from whites over the years than he had from his own race. Many of the whites, unlike his Black peers, enjoyed his art the way it was, without him altering it. However, though Hughes appreciated the support he received from whites, he didn’t cater toward his white audience, because he didn’t fit in with them either. Closer to the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes lived with a white benefactor who paid all of his expenses so that he could write without distraction. But when that benefactor criticized one of his pieces, a satirical poem on the racist Windsor-Astoria hotel, Hughes realized she couldn’t possibly understand him. Instead of censoring his art for the white benefactor’s money, Hughes decided it would be best for him to manage himself.

He lost what he thought was a friend.

Even though Hughes didn’t always appeal to the expectations of black intellectuals of the time, he didn’t write his pieces to appeal to whites either. Hughes wrote for himself, as a way to decipher his own conflicting thoughts on what it meant to be African and American in a country at a time when it was expected for blacks to embrace the African aspect only to gain equal standing as an American.

Works Cited

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