Langston Hughes's first autobiography titled The Big Sea details vignettes about his life as a struggling young writer, particularly struggling against the racial barriers that hampered African Americans from achieving success. His book certainly covers many themes, the greatest theme concerning the adversities that accompanied being African American in the States. He also uses multiple minor themes to further develop his central theme, including the hardship of poverty and the need to express one's self freely.
Like many of his poems and short stories, in his autobiography, Hughes very honestly discusses the problems of racial barriers and the Jim Crow laws in the United States. One example he uses to illustrate the hardships the Jim Crow laws created concerns his father. His father moved to Mexico just to escape Jim Crow laws and racism in order to freely build his own law practice, a practice that was very successful.
Hughes also uses his experience at Columbia University, in New York City, far away from the Jim Crow laws, to illustrate the effects of racism in the United States. Hughes had difficulty acquiring his dorm room assignment even though his father "reserved [his room] long ago, and paid the required deposit by mail" (p. 82). Hughes next describes the "puzzled" look he received from the receptionist and that she had to confirm with other people before she could finally give him admission into the dorm room, a room no one was "too anxious to give [him]" once they saw he was "colored" (p. 82). Hughes further notes that he would continue seeing that sort of reaction all his life, "that strange astonishment on the part of so many whites that a Negro should expect any of the common courtesies and conveniences that other Americans enjoy" (p. 82).
Hughes also uses his experiences at Columbia to illustrate his theme concerning the need to express one's self freely. More importantly, he demonstrates that the racial barriers of the United States significantly influence the ability of African Americans to express themselves; hence the theme concerning the freedom of expression goes hand in hand with his dominant theme concerning racial barriers. Though his father had fully paid for Hughes's education at Columbia, Hughes left after only one year, feeling stifled by both the racism and the educational system within the university. He realized that his true desire was to live and work in Harlem and he left to fulfill his own ambitions rather than his father's desires for him. He also felt uncomfortable receiving money for education from his father because his father had not supported either him or his mother financially as he was growing up. Later, as he undertook his career as a writer, he found financial support from a patroness he does not name who lived on Park Avenue. Though he benefited a great deal from her financial support, he put an end to the arrangement after a year to go back out on his own because he also began feeling that her assistance was stifling his true desires. Hence, Hughes even uses the vignette of his patroness to develop his theme concerning the need to express one's self freely.
After quitting college, he set out to survive on his own by working any menial job he could get, including working as a farm hand, a mess boy on sea voyages, and a truck driver. He uses the vignettes about his job experiences to develop his theme concerning the hardship of poverty, hardship made more severe by racial barriers. He especially uses his experiences in Paris to develop the theme of hardship. He worked as a mess boy on a ship bound for Paris. Once in Paris, he tried to find work. It took him a very long month to find any work, and he described this as the moment when he first learned what it truly meant to be hungry.