I: Twenty-One

Abrupt Encounter

Eleven years had gone by and I had not seen my father. Suddenly, one day in the spring of 1919, a letter came from Mexico saying:

My Dear Langston:

I am going to New York for a few days on a business trip in June. On the way back I will send you a wire to be ready to meet me as the train comes through Cleveland. You are to accompany me to Mexico for the summer.

your father,
James N. Hughes.

This letter made my mother very angry. She said it was just like my devilish, evil father—when I got big enough to work and help her earn a living, he wanted to come and take me off to Mexico. Then she began to cry. She said after all she had done for me, if I wanted to go away and leave her, to go ahead, go ahead!

I said I wanted to go to Mexico for the summer to see what the country was like—and my father. Then I would be back in the fall.

My mother was a waitress in a restaurant on Central Avenue, and she and my step-father were back together. My mother wouldn’t be alone if I went to Mexico, so I began to get ready to go. My step-father thought it would be a good thing and said: “Sure, go on.”

That spring I had got my track letter for the high-jump and the 440-relays, but I didn’t have the money to buy a new sweater, so I packed the track letter away in my suitcase to show to my father.

James N. Hughes, my father! I vaguely remembered him carrying me in his arms the night of the big earthquake in Mexico City, when I was six years old. Since then he had always been in Mexico and I had been in the States growing up while my grandmother died and the house went to the mortgage man, my mother traveled about the country looking for my step-father or for a better job, always moving from one house to another, where the rent was cheaper or there was at least a bathroom or a backyard to hang out clothes. And me growing up living with my grandmother, with aunts who were really no relation, with my mother in rented rooms, or alone trying to get through high school—always some kind of crisis in our lives. My father, permanently in Mexico during all those turbulent years, represented for me the one stable factor in my life. He at least stayed put.

“Your father is a devil on wheels,” my mother said. “As mean and evil a Negro as ever lived!”

And when I displeased her, she declared I was just like my father.

I didn’t believe her. In my mind I pictured my father as a kind of strong, bronze cowboy, in a big Mexican hat, going back and forth from his business in the city to his ranch in the mountains, free—in a land where there were no white folks to draw the color line, and no tenements with rent always due—just mountains and sun and cacti: Mexico!

That spring, I was anxious to see my father.

Then an unfortunate thing happened in Cleveland. We moved on the first of June. But I left word with the landlady, that, should any messages come for me, she should send them directly to the new place where we lived. And every morning, to make sure, I went out to our old lodgings to see if there was any word from my father, now in New York.

But his telegram came late one afternoon, when our former landlady was not at home, so the delivery boy simply stuck it in the mail box, and the woman did not notice it there until the next morning.


That was the night before! The landlady found the wire, when I went out there the following morning. My heart stopped beating. Had my father gone on to Mexico without me, when he did not find me on the station platform? There was no further message from him. Had he, maybe, got off the train and stayed the night in Cleveland? Then where would he be?

I went to the telephone and called up the various colored hotels. The second one I called said, yes, there was a James Hughes stopping there, but that he had gone out to breakfast. I told them to tell him when he came back that his son would be right down.

The hotel was on Central Avenue, a block and a half from the restaurant where my mother worked as a waitress. I began to walk down Central Avenue as fast as I could. When I was about three blocks above the hotel, I saw a little, bronze man with a moustache, coming rapidly up the street toward me. We looked closely at each other as we passed. Then we turned and looked back.

The man said: “Are you Langston?”

I said: “Yes. Are you my father?”

“Why weren’t you at the train last night?” he asked.

“We moved, and I didn’t get your wire till this morning.”

“Just like niggers,” he spat out. “Always moving! Are you ready to go?”

“Soon as I tell my mother good-bye.”

“I just saw your mother,” he said, “waiting table in a restaurant. If she’d stayed with me, she’d have been wearing diamonds.”

I didn’t know what to say about that, so I just stood there.

“I’m going to a barber shop,” my father said. “Meet me at the hotel in half an hour. We’ll leave on the noon train.”

He turned and went up the street. He never said a word about being glad to see me.

That morning, by accident, he had been for breakfast to the very restaurant where my mother was working. When they recognized each other, he said: “How are you?”

All my mother said was: “What’s your order?”

She served him ham and eggs and he left her a dime tip. She told the woman who ran the restaurant to throw the dime in the street.

When I came in, my mother was very angry as she told me this. “But go on if you want to! Go on! Go to Mexico if you want to go.”

“Gee, ma! Don’t be mad at me,” I said. “I didn’t pick him out for a father.”

“Go with him!” she cried over the counter. “Go on—and leave me! Go ahead!”

“I might as well go,” I said. “I haven’t got any job in Cleveland.”

“Sure, go on!” she said. “Hard as I’ve worked and as little as you care about me!”

By now, some customers came in and my mother had to wait on them. I sat on a stool at the counter a long time, but she kept walking by me silently to the coffee urns, the steam table, or to the kitchen. I wanted her to say something to me. But finally it was time to go. So I went.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.