“Melodramatic maybe, it seems to me now,” wrote Langston Hughes in his autobiography. “But then it was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water. I leaned over the rail of the S.S. Malone and threw the books as far as I could out into the sea—all the books I had had at Columbia University, and all the books I had lately bought to read.”
This opening paragraph from The Big Sea, Hughes’ autobiography, is stunning and ironic given the mark he would later make in the world of books and literature. He was twenty-one and this act was his way of casting off the past and “not allowing anything to happen to me again that I didn’t want to happen,” he wrote.
Well, it was clearly an act of futility because things happened to him that he willed into being and things he couldn’t prevent, particularly the adoration he received during his productive literary career.
Hughes was born February 1, 1902 and died in 1967, and between those two dates he became one of the nation’s most versatile writers, excelling in practically every endeavor he pursued—plays, essays, novels, short stories, song lyrics, nonfiction, translations (Spanish and French), and above all, poetry.
The mark of fame was on him even before he was born in Joplin, Missouri and made Harlem his home. His grandmother, who raised him, was married to Lewis Leary, one of the five black men who rode with the militant abolitionist John Brown in his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, an event, among others, that triggered the Civil War. His paternal grandfather hailed from an illustrious family that included his great uncle, John Mercer Langston, a pioneering elected official during the Reconstruction Era.
Hughes was only eighteen when he wrote perhaps his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” that was first published in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Today it is among the most anthologized poems in the American literary canon.
I won’t take up too much of your time here and whether you are familiar with his work as so many are, or are just discovering him for the first time, I suggest you pick up anyone of his many books, and unlike his youthful action, don’t throw them away but read them and cherish his memory during Black History Month.