Form and Content

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

Langston Hughes’s autobiography, The Big Sea, is divided into three sections that cover his life up to the age of twenty-nine, when he was on the verge of being able to make his living strictly as a writer. The first section is entitled “Twenty-One” and begins as Hughes left New York as a mess boy on a ship bound for Africa. Upon his arrival, the Africans would not believe that he was a Negro. Hughes then traces his family history, which explains why he was not believed, as he had white ancestors and was not darkly colored. His lineage included a white Jewish slave trader from Kentucky, a whiskey distiller of Scottish descent, a white great-grandfather, and a French and Indian grandmother. Hughes states that, in the United States, the word “Negro” meant someone with any Negro blood, while in Africa it meant someone with all Negro blood.

Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, where he was reared mostly by his grandmother. His father, James Hughes, had gone to Mexico to avoid the barrier of the color line. Hughes says that books became important to him while he was in the second grade in Lawrence; they offered a wonderful world that brought momentary relief from the reality of his own world. Also in Lawrence, Hughes underwent the trauma of “salvation.” In a chapter that is often anthologized in reading texts, he tells of feigning the receiving of Jesus into his life as a young boy.

Hughes moved with his...

(The entire section is 490 words.)