Book Review: The Big Sea Langston Hughes first memoir.
I just finished reading Langston Hughes first memoir “The Big Sea”. I love Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston so much they are my favourite writers. I really can’t choose between Langston and Zora both are incredible writers and they mean so much to me. I love them both.
If you want to gain a real appreciation for Langston Hughes as a writer do yourself a favor read the book at the public library or just buy the book. The Big Sea was published in the year 1940 it is an account about the early part of Langston’s life from birth to his early 30s. Langston discusses how he got “discovered” by the white American poet Vachel Lindsay. Langston writes eloquently about visiting Africa and Europe for the first time during the 1920s and the trials and tribulations of being a sailor.
I was most impressed with Langston’s description of the Harlem Renaissance. I felt like I was there with all of the energy, excitement, and electricity of the moment. Langston met other famous black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, Wallace Thurman, Richard Bruce Nugent, the sculptor Aaron Douglas, and the white gay writer Carl Van Vechten. I think Langston was brave to travel to Africa and Europe as a young man. I guess he was seeking adventure and wanted to see the world.
Carl Van Vechten is a very interesting figure in the history of the Harlem Renaissance because he was the only white person that was a part of the “inner circle”. Later on in his life Van Vechten also got involved in photography. Van Vechten met Langston and Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s and he was friends with both writers for the rest of their lives.
Van Vechten became famous in the 1920s because he was part of a controversy over a book he had written called “Nigger Heaven”. Now the title of the novel of course is controversial. However, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and other black writers actually defended Van Vechten when some black critics during this era slammed Van Vechten and called him racist. The term Nigger Heaven actually refers to the balcony section in the movie theaters where blacks were forced to sit during the 1920s.
I think Van Vechten had another meaning for “Nigger Heaven” that “Harlem” was like a gallery where whites were able to “watch” blacks but at a “distance”. I also believe Van Vechen was “referring” to whites viewing blacks as science experiments something to be “gawked” at and not taken seriously. Van Vechten was clearly writing about the racial and social apartheid in America he was criticizing white Americans for their hypocrisy. If blacks are so fun to be around why the need for the American laws to treat blacks as second class citizens? I won’t call “Nigger Heaven” a protest novel but clearly the book is important.
Van Vechten was ahead of his time he was cognizant of the hypocrisy and racism of white America. In Harlem blacks were barred from certain clubs such as the Cotton Club that was reserved for whites only. The only blacks allowed inside this exclusive venue were the entertainers such as the singers, musicians, and dancers that performed for whites.
Van Vechten also was very instrumental in connecting Langston Hughes with Alfred Knopf to publish his work he also helped other black writers reach a larger audience. Van Vechten, although gay, he was married to a woman; he drank heavily too, but he was a very charismatic kind of a person and threw great parties. Van Vechten is really one of the few whites during the Harlem Renaissance that wasn’t “exploiting” blacks but really had a genuine interest in black art and black culture.
During the numerous parties on the weekends regular folks mingled with celebrities like Ethel Barrymore, Salvador Dali, and even royalty in Harlem. White people flocked to Harlem to “watch” blacks. Josephine Baker was a hit on Broadway in the play “Shuffle Along.” Langston also discusses his cynical view of the Renaissance about how white Americans viewed black people as “primitive” and as a form of a social experiment or entertainment.
Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston also had a patronage with a mysterious wealthy white woman named Charlotte Osgood Mason also known as “godmother.” Ms. Mason paid Zora and Langston a salary to find the black “primitive art” she was so interested in. Hughes became disillusioned with Ms. Mason and stopped working for her around the year 1930 because he didn’t feel that she really “respected” African American culture. Langston felt Ms. Mason had a myopic view of blackness and black people.
Langston also discusses a legendary feud with Zora Neale Hurston about a play they wrote together called “Mule Bone.” Its kind of sad that this great literary friendship ended over a play. The story goes like this Zora wrote the play and wanted Langston to help her fix it up and he did. Langston helped write the final draft of the play. Now a typist Louise Thompson was hired but Zora didn’t want the other “woman” to claim credit to the play. Zora visited Langston’s mother’s house in Cleveland and she was furious screaming and yelling at Langston. Ms. Hughes had to calm Zora down. Zora continued to insist that Langston was trying to give credit to “another girl”. Ms Hughes was not pleased but eventually Zora and Langston had a discussion about the play but the friendship was over at this point.
In Zora’s memoir, “Dust Tracks On A Road”, she ignores Langston and the entire Mule Bone incident. In Carla Kaplan’s wonderful biography “Zora A Life In Letters” she connects the dots. Now I know Langston was a homosexual but I get this sense that maybe Zora had feelings for him? Were Langston and Zora lovers? I wonder? Maybe I am imagining things but I sense Langston and Zora may of had a romantic relationship? Did Zora know she had feelings for a homosexual? Now I am not suggesting Langston and Zora were lovers but why was Zora so upset about Louise Thompson? Its interesting in Langston’s memoir he doesn’t mention the typist Louise Thompson by name yet Carla Kaplan’s book does. Its kind of sad that this play destroyed their friendship. Langston and Zora only briefly communicated after the “Mule Bone” incident a few times in the 1930s and that was it.
Langston discussions about the incredible racial discrimination blacks experienced even in Harlem is very powerful. Blacks were viewed as just the “entertainment” often blacks were not allowed to enter certain clubs such as the “Cotton Club.”
I just love this book so much! Its so inspiring to read about his writing career and his life and the difficulty he had with maintaining a relationship with his father. Langston did not enjoy visiting his father in Mexico he even says he “hated” his father.
It was depressing at times to read about the incredible struggles Langston endured just because he was a young black man. I just cannot imagine the incredible amount of racial discrimination Langston endured during his life. I am not just talking about just the physical also the psychological effects this racist treatment must of had on older generations of black people. I think younger black people we forget the horrible treatment our elders experienced. I cannot imagine what he went through. Langston was forced to sit in the black section of a train or bus due to race. Langston also was not allowed to get accommodations at certain hotels due to being black. Blacks also were barred from using washrooms in public places as well. Even going to the park was an a big issue for African Americans during this era.
The racial apartheid of America was in full force. The Harlem Renaissance was an important time for black writers because it was the first time blacks believed there was “hope” through art. Angelina Weld Grimke the black lesbian poet had written her play about lynching “Rachel” in the year 1920. Nobody knows exactly when the Harlem Renaissance started but historians do say it ended around the 1929 or perhaps 1930.
The one area of “The Big Sea” I noticed Langston was reticent about is his love life. I was so curious I craved to know more. I believe this is the most frustrating part about the memoir I still didn’t feel like I knew everything about the real Langston Hughes? I find it very hard to believe that a man so attractive, so handsome, so charismatic, so beautiful, so intelligent such as Langston Hughes was unable to find a male lover?
Langston must of had some male or female lovers during his early life? Langston’s love life is basically non existent in “The Big Sea”. The question remains why?I find this part of the memoir most perplexing. I want to peak into Langston’s mind. I want to peel beneath the surface and shatter the canyon of silence. There isn’t even a section about his so called “heterosexual” romances much less about his gay love affairs. There appears to be a dissemblance by Langston around the issue of his homosexuality. Later on in Langston’s life he does write about homoerotic themes such as the poem cafe 3 am.
I understand during this period it was hard for African American gays and lesbians to be “respected” by the heterosexual black community. It was basically impossible to be out of the closet Langston didn’t have a choice he had to conceal his homosexuality. I think the constant need to “hide” his sexuality affected Langston emotionally and psychologically. I cannot imagine the intense fear and pressure he endured wondering if the black race would respect him if they knew he was gay.
Although the famous butch piano player Gladys Bentley was “out” about her lesbianism during the 1920s society was less fearful of lesbianism then male homosexuality. Gladys moved from Harlem to Hollywood and later on in her life shifted back to heterosexuality. Bessie Smith the Blues singer she “out” as a bisexual she had numerous affairs with female singers and dancers during the 1920s. Ma Rainey was also bisexual as well. However, Langston was a black man and the fallout would of been much greater if he did come out as gay.
It makes “sense” for Langston to conceal his homosexuality during his lifetime. How could Langston possibly come out in an era where black people still didn’t have equal rights? What good would that do? People have to remember that black gays in Langston’s era encounted multiple layers of oppression.
If Langston came out during his era it would destroy his career and maybe even his life. Langston also didn’t write much about homosexuality during his lifetime because I believe he always had a “fear” of being outed for a variety of reasons. The USA government even had witch hunts against gays in the 1940s and 1950s. Langston most likely did the “right” thing to remain in the closet he had no choice. Sure, one can argue the African American James Baldwin was brave and he was.
James Baldwin was also born in 1924 he was over twenty years “younger” then Langston Hughes. Baldwin I believe really was brave to write “Giovanni’s Room” in 1956. Notice though in “Giovanni’s Room” the protagonist is a white boy and not black. Some people say Baldwin made the characters in that book “white” to reach a larger mainstream audience there was a higher potential to make more money. And of course its true its just shrewd business. Baldiwn knew if he wrote the main gay characters David and Giovanni as “white” both white and black America would just see the book as pure “fiction”.
After all, an argument is why can’t a black writer write a book with white characters? However, think about the time period that Baldwin lived in. Would “Giovanni’s Room” really be as celebrated by the white heterosexual or homosexual communities if the characters in that book were African Americans? Wouldn’t this give racist organizations in America ammunition to pathologize blacks more?
Often a lot of gay historians and scholars always exclude this important point. Baldwin wouldn’t be “celebrated” at the beginning of his career by the black or white press if “Giovanni’s Room” was about black gay men. The civil rights movement just started in 1955 one year before “Giovanni’s Room” was published. Baldwin would be crucified by the NAACP and other black heterosexual leaders if “Giovanni’s Room” was about black gay men they would brand him as a traitor and a sell out. Baldwin would lose his “place” within the private sphere of black society. I also believe the white mainstream media would be hypocritical. Racist organizations such as the KKK would just say blacks had “no morals”. During the 1950s homosexuality was thought of as a disease of the mind an affliction that could be “cured”. James Baldwin would be thought of as a “race traitor” and as a disgrace.
Also, the black media didn’t mind “Giovanni’s Room” because the book had “nothing” to do with the black community. If Baldwin had written “Giovanni’s Room” with black gay male characters during the 1950s I think it would really tarnish his reputation with the heterosexual black community during that era. There would be a storm of controversy and anger by straight blacks it could of been a major uproar against Baldwin.
Its easy for people in the 21st century to say Langston Hughes could of or should of come out but we have to remember the time and space Hughes lived in. Homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder during Langston Hughes lifetime. The black and white heterosexual communities still looked down on homosexuals for both religious and personal reasons.Homosexuality was also considered to be something “white people” engaged in but not civilized black folks. If Hughes did come out he never would be respected by the heterosexual black community. Hughes would never be considered the “hero” of black literature that he is viewed as today. Its not right the kind of thinking that existed during Langston Hughes lifetime but that was the reality. The gay and lesbian movement didn’t really start until the late 1960s and early 1970 far beyond Hughes lifetime.
I sense some internalized homophobia from Langston in the memoir when he describes other gay black men. Langston is projecting the image in the memoir that he is heterosexual and this is false. In fact, according to Faith Berry’s 1992 biography on Langston Hughes she says Hughes had an intense romantic relationship with a Jamaican man.
However, in “The Big Sea” Hughes does write about drag balls from a homophobic perspective. Langston calls the black drag queens “pathetic”. The whole aspect of drag in black queer history is important because it proves black gay men existed despite living in separate spheres. Black gay men won awards and prizes for wearing the most sensational outfits and performances at the drag balls. during the 1920s.
One black man that had an intense infatuation with Langston was the openly gay black professor Alain Locke. In fact, I believe Alain Locke and Langston could of had a secret relationship perhaps? Locke has written many letters to Langston that are quite passionate and if you read between the lines you can tell Alain was in “in love” with Langston. Although I think it was an unrequited love. Langston doesn’t discuss Alain Locke’s obvious attempts to “gain” his attention and his infatuation with him. I think its a tragedy that Langston Hughes wasn’t able to be more free and live without judgement as a black gay man during his lifetime.