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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Big Sea is a 1993 autobiographical memoir written by American novelist and poet Langston Hughes. In it, Hughes writes of his life, describing his childhood, his college years, and his decision to start writing poetry to earn some money during the Great Depression in America.

Like the waves of the sea coming one after another, always one after another, like the earth moving around the sun, night, day-night, day-night, day-forever, so is the undertow of black music with its rhythm that never betrays you, its strength like the beat of the human heart, its humor, and its rooted power.

It was a little like my senior year in high school – except more so – when one noticed that the kids began to get a bit grown and girl-conscious and stand-offish and anti-Negro in the American way, that increases when kids take on the accepted social habits.

Hughes explores a plethora of socially relevant themes, such as racism, discrimination, and prejudice, but also determination, passion, and the love for books and literature.

Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in nothing but books and the wonderful world in books – where if people suffered, they suffered in beautiful language, not in monosyllables, as we did in Kansas. And where almost always the mortgage got paid off, the good knights won and the Alger boy triumphed.

For my best poems were all written when I felt the worst. When I was happy, I didn’t write anything.

The novel received mainly positive reviews, both by critics and readers alike, primarily for its raw, honest, and thought-provoking narrative. Hughes provides a detailed description of life as a black citizen in America in the 1930s and 40s, and gives insight into all of the challenges and struggles the black community had to face.

In the primitive world, where people live closer to the earth and much nearer to the stars, every inner and outer act combines to form the single harmony, life. Not just the tribal lore then, but every movement of life becomes a part of their education. They do not, as many civilized people do, neglect the truth of the physical for the sake of the mind. Nor do they teach with speech alone, but rather with all the acts of life. There are no books, so the barrier between words and reality is not so great as with us. The earth is right under their feet. The stars are never far away. The strength of the surest dream is the strength of the primitive world.

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