He Saw the Sea

Every April is Switcheroo Month here at the Gutter as each Editor writes about something outside their usual domain. This week SF/Fantasy Editor Keith writes about Langston Hughes’ life of adventure.


It was in the middle of a vicious squall on the way back from a port of call somewhere on the west coast of Africa that the monkeys escaped. Astoundingly, they survived the lashing rain and the hurricane winds and the cold and, when the storm finally quieted and the seas calmed, it was the monkeys who rules large portions of certain decks, which they defended bravely until such time as they got hungry and came in search of food back to the cages lashed to the deck. Jocko, the most magnificent of the monkeys, would go on to live in New York at the height of the roaring ’20s before seeking his fortunes further west in the American heartland. After a scandalous incident in which Jocko, out shooting billiards one night with friends, became enraged and defecated all over the pool tables, he settled in Pittsburgh — the last known whereabouts of Jocko to his young friend and traveling companion, Langston Hughes.

About the Harlem Renaissance and the artists, thinkers, dreamers, and activists who comprised it, I received the standard mainstream American education. Which is to say, I read a couple of W.E.B. DuBois essays in high school and learned the names, if not the works, of musician Duke Ellington and poet Langston Hughes. In college, more or less by accident I admit, I learned a good deal about Zora Neale Hurston, another luminary of the Renaissance and a Gainesville local (more or less). It wasn’t until much later, and of my own volition, that a string of research and writing projects reminded me how utterly ignorant I was of this period in history that played such an important role not just in the project on which I was working, but also in my own personal interests and the history of the United States (and, really, quite a few others). While not becoming a scholar of the Harlem Renaissance by any stretch, I decided it was well past time I got myself schooled in the history and the works of the era’s great writers.

What I knew about Langston Hughes was “leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance.” It’s possible that in some class, at some point, I’d been assigned to read “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” but either I didn’t remember it or I just didn’t do it. So in the curriculum I set for myself, I put Hughes at the top, alongside a history of the Cotton Club (as ugly as some of that history is) and a re-acquaintance with Zora Neale Hurston. I started out by reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and although I’m not much of a reader of poetry, it was stunning. I realized, before reading more of his poetry, I wanted to know about the man. Luckily, and against his better judgement, Langston Hughes wrote two autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander. After getting no more than a few sentences into The Big Sea, I was shocked by a couple of revelations: first, that Langston Hughes wrote “Rivers” when he was just seventeen; and second, that The Big Sea was going to be not just an autobiography, but a rousing tale of globetrotting adventure easily the measure of Richard Halliburton, Freya Stark, or any of the other seat-of-their-pants explorers.

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston

“Leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance” always made me think of Hughes as a well-dressed, vaguely middle-aged intellectual in a waistcoat and smoking jacket, puffing on a pipe while sitting in a well-appointed study discussing topics of great import with a salon of similarly urbane cognac-sipping sophisticates. Everyone is always the older photo of themselves in my mind. To learn that he was a teenager when he wrote one of his most famous poems, that he was perpetually broke and, even amidst great acclaim, leading something of a vagabond existence was surprising and inspiring. He was, it turned out, a lot like me and my arty punk rock college friends, except for, you know, the eventual international acclaim. But he was just this kid, no older than we had been, but more talented with the English language. He was able to write something as moving as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” because, before he was twenty, he’d lived in multiple places, including Mexico, with his rich father who aspired to be a baron of the Mexican ranch lands and pretty much succeeded. In 1923, when Hughes was 21 or 22 years old, he decided that he’d had his fill of studies and society and New York (where he was living at the time). So he walked down to the docks, procured a job on a cargo ship, and with no preparation other than dissatisfaction and wanderlust, set sail for distant ports.

The Big Sea is an autobiography, sure, but it could just as comfortably sit on a shelf of travelogues, a genre then and still so often dominated by white writers. Hughes’ odyssey took him to multiple European and African countries, got him into plentiful scrapes and ridiculous situations, and saw him, eventually, acquire the companionship of Jocko the monkey. He spent time working as a dishwasher in Paris, again lucking into a squalid but safe apartment with a fellow wanderer and a job at a posh nightclub where he met a number of touring black American entertainers and got into some club-wide brawls straight out of Looney Toons. Seriously, when the cranky one-eyed chef comes storming out of the kitchen waving around a butcher knife during a fracas involving people in their finest evening wear…

Even back in America, Hughes continued to live as he had as a sailor in Africa and England and an ex-pat in Paris and Italy. Stringing together a meager existence writing poetry for the emerging class of magazines dedicated to black literature, he soon hit the great American road with Zora Neale Hurtson, wandering from New Orleans through the backwaters of the American south as Zora sought every storyteller, hoodoo man, and folk historian she could find. His experiences ensconced in the Harlem Renaissance — living a life meager and ragged enough to make some of the more well-to-do members of Harlem society swoon — is an interesting first-hand account of the excitement and creativity and a bit of deconstruction of the myth, recounting as he does the fickle patronage of rich white New Yorkers, the treatment of Harlem as a zoo for whites to come observe those wild black people in their natural habitat, and the paltry pay that came with being the movement’s most famous poet. But Hughes never descends into bitterness. He remains forever ebullient despite his hardscrabble economic situation, and in fact, upon landing a cushy academic appointment, can’t wait to ditch it and go get another job in a kitchen or on a ship, where he has way more fun and feels much more inspired.

Anyone who has read any Richard Halliburton, especially his first book, The Royal Road to Romance, will recognize a strong similarity between his entertaining misadventures and those of Langston Hughes (minus Halliburton’s lamentable, if mainstream for white America, racial language). Both were young men who grew dissatisfied with school and the prospects of a professional career. Both had rich fathers who could have made their lives easier, but they instead struck out on their own with no money. And both despite and because of youth and ignorance, because they were too cocky and energetic and naive to know what not to do, experienced amazing adventures and moments of unbelievable good luck. And while Halliburton may have seen Petra with nary another soul around and been arrested in Gibraltar, but he never had to figure out a way to smuggle himself out of an opulent life in Italy and back into a life of poverty in France after losing his passport. And Richard Halliburton never had a sidekick like Jocko.

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