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“The Big Sea” by Langston Hughes

This is why it’s so important for me to write about things immediately after I experience them, or else I forget why I’m excited to write about something in the first place.

Anyway, I digress.

Ever since the inauguration of the new US president and all the hell that it has unleashed, I’ve been on a mission to read more about the Civil Rights era and to read more about Black history in general. I had purchased Langston Hughes’ The Big Sea years ago on a whim, and it sat on my shelf unperturbed, expecting not to be read like so many other books on my shelf.

But I picked it up at the beginning of last month and what a shame it would have been if I never read this book. I’m not great about writing about books or movies sometimes, because I find that when something gives me the feels, it stresses me out too much to try to do it justice, and so instead I just collapse onto that ball of feels and never attempt to dissect it, heh.

The Big Sea was a wonderful read. It’s an autobiography of Langston Hughes, and reads like a collection of diary entries describing his experiences as a young, wandering poet. I don’t read a lot of autobiographies, so I can’t tell you if this style and format is similar to how others write theirs, but reading it felt like an intimate experience, as if Hughes was leisurely recalling his life to you over a glass of wine.

Hughes is a beautiful writer, writing in a way that I can only lamely convey as lovely. He’s an incredibly thoughtful person, observant and reflective, relaying his thoughts on what it was like to be a Black man, what it’s like to be from the south, what it’s like to travel abroad as an American all in very clear, firm strokes in concise, conversational language.

He’s simultaneously adventurous and leisurely, and reading his book was such a decompressor for a fairly tense, stressed, and anxious person like me. In fact, his words were such a lullaby that I could not wait for the next opportunity to read them, and I’ve never experienced that while reading an autobiography. (Side note: what also married beautifully into this experience was the music I listened to while reading this book. I created a playlist consisting of some Etta James, Frank Sinatra, Ben E. King, a bunch of other oldies, and also … Kiiara’s low kii savage, so if you are also someone who likes to create a similar mood by listening to some era-appropriate music and then transition quickly to electronic pop, this would work, lol.)

The sense I got reading this book was that Hughes was really willing to step outside his comfort zone. In fact, I don’t think a comfort zone as a concept even “exists” for a man of his time — what’s a “comfort zone” if life is all a discomfort? He experienced a lot of poverty, instability, and duh, racism, but he was clearheaded in what he wanted to do, and went about it achieving it however he could. He needed money and he wanted the chance to travel, so he worked as a seaman. And he kept working on ships until he got tired of it and permanently settled back on land. He needed a way to make money while he was living in Mexico City, so he taught English to Spanish-speakers. He wanted to write, so he supported his writing by doing whatever odd jobs were available. And so on and so forth.

The coddled millennial in me is showing, but it was extremely gratifying to read the experiences of someone who didn’t dwell in self-doubt, worry, or unfathomable expectations. I think a lot of the worries and stressors in my generation are unique to my generation and the way society is today compared to how it was 100 years ago, but Hughes’ recollection of his life was almost a panacea for me.

There is no doubt that his life was infinitely more difficult than mine, but his mindset was truly a thing of beauty. I often struggle with questions of how to be more chill, how to be less angry, how to be less anxious, how to be less irritable, and I forget sometimes how much privilege I have and how much that privilege will take care of a lot of problems in my life if push came to shove. Barring sudden illness (knock on wood), there are very little actual problems I have that cannot be sorted out painlessly. But I think living as a young person in the 21st century has engrained in me certain conflict-triggered reflexes that are disproportionate to the severity of my problems.

At least, that’s how I feel compared to the problems Hughes had. Of course, I cannot compare my problems to the ones someone else living 100 years ago had, but it’s helpful to be reminded — or taught for the first time — that there’s always a way to be open-minded. Again, I say this as a person with plenty of privilege, not faced with poverty, disease, war, or disability.

Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t read this book and feel my life was uplifted and that all will be okay and do a little dance and tap my shoes together. It was just helpful for me to be aware of other dispositions one can take in life — to deal with problems as they come, to always be learning, to always be reading, to always be knowledgeable, to always be curious, and to always be open.

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