II: Big Sea


The first day out of New York harbor, the sailors began to clean up the ship. All the filth and garbage that had accumulated in the harbor was dumped into the ocean, and the limpid blue-green of the sea received the garbage and swill, and didn’t seem to be dirtied at all. That is one of the many wonders of the sea—that the garbage and bilge water of ten thousand ships is dumped into it every day, and the sea is never dirty.

Soon our ship became bright and shining, the brass all polished, the decks chipped, and the bulkheads painted. And the crew became rested and clean, sleep all caught up after nights ashore in New York. The sun was very bright, a brisk breeze was blowing, the spray salt and cool, the waves foamy-white, and the air like a tonic in the lungs. And nobody was afraid of being hungry or homeless or out of work or not needed in the scheme of things for six months as we headed toward Africa.

The crossing was bright and sunny. We reached the Azores, the Canaries, and finally Africa. A long, sandy coast-line, gleaming in the sun. Palm trees sky-tall. Rivers darkening the sea’s edge with the loam of their deltas. People, black and beautiful as the night. The bare, pointed breasts of women in the market places. The rippling muscles of men loading palm oil and cocoa beans and mahogany on ships from the white man’s world, for that was why our ship was there—to carry away the treasures of Africa. We brought machinery and tools, canned goods, and Hollywood films. We took away riches out of the earth, loaded by human hands.

We paid very little for the labor. We paid but little more for the things we took away. The white man dominates Africa. He takes produce, and lives, very much as he chooses. The yield of earth for Europe and America. The yield of men for Europe’s colonial armies. And the Africans are baffled and humble. They listen to the missionaries and bow down before the Lord, but they bow much lower before the traders, who carry whips and guns and are protected by white laws, made in Europe for the black colonies.

At that time, 1923, the name of Marcus Garvey was known the length and breadth of the West Coast of Africa. And the Africans did not laugh at Marcus Garvey, as so many people laughed in New York. They hoped what they had heard about him was true—that he really would unify the black world, and free and exalt Africa. They did not understand the terrific complications of the Colonial Problem. They only knew the white man was there in Africa, heavy and oppressive on their backs. And they wanted him to go away.

“Our problems in America are very much like yours,” I told the Africans, “especially in the South. I am a Negro, too.”

But they only laughed at me and shook their heads and said: “You, white man! You, white man!”

It was the only place in the world where I’ve ever been called a white man. They looked at my copper-brown skin and straight black hair—like my grandmother’s Indian hair, except a little curly—and they said: “You—white man.”

One of the Kru men from Liberia, working on our ship, who had seen many American Negroes, of various shades and colors, and knew much of America, explained to me.

“Here,” he said, “on the West Coast, there are not many colored people—people of mixed blood—and those foreign colored men who are here come mostly as missionaries, to teach us something, since they think we know nothing. Or they come from the West Indies, as clerks and administrators in the colonial governments, to help carry out the white man’s laws. So the Africans call them all white men.”

“But I am not white,” I said.

“You are not black either,” the Kru man said simply. “There is a man of my color.” And he pointed to George, the pantryman, who protested loudly.

“Don’t point at me,” George said. “I’m from Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.A. And no African blood, nowhere.”

“You black,” said the Kru man.

“I can part my hair,” said George, “and it ain’t nappy.”

But to tell the truth, George shaved a part in his hair every other week, since the comb wouldn’t work. The Kru man knew this, so they both laughed loudly, for George’s face was as African as Africa.

(Yet, dark as he was, George always referred to himself as brownskin, and it was not until years later, when a dark-skinned minister in New Jersey denounced me to his congregation for using the word black to describe him in a newspaper article, that I realized that most dark Negroes in America do not like the word black at all. They prefer to be referred to as brownskin, or at the most as dark brownskin—no matter how dark they really are.)

In one of the smaller African ports, I came across a peculiarly poignant tragedy of mixed blood. I do not know if this is typical, but I tell it for what it is worth. (Much later, I wrote a short story derived from it, called “African Morning,” that is, I think, one of my best stories.)

We were in a small port, up a river mouth, in an English colony. As our ship dropped anchor, I noticed, in a group of dark-skinned natives on the deck, a mulatto boy of perhaps sixteen or seventeen, whose skin was golden, not brown, or black. He was dressed in European clothing. When I came ashore with some of the other sailors to barter for fruit or parrots, the boy spoke to us and asked if we had any English papers or magazines.

The boy’s name was Edward. He spoke very good English, and he liked to come down to the boat often to talk with us during the week we were there. He took me one day to his house, a very modest house, much like the other African huts, and I was introduced to his mother, who did not speak English. She was young and not unbeautiful, in African clothing, a flowered cloth wrapped about her body. She offered me cocoanut juice to drink and the only chair.

Edward’s father was an Englishman, I learned, who had been in charge of the bank at this far-flung post of the British Empire. He had lived inside a kind of compound, where the bank and the various government officials’ homes were located. Four years ago, Edward had lived inside that compound, too, for a while with his mother, the house servant. But his father had retired and gone back to England. And now Edward and his mother lived outside the compound. His father had left a small allowance for them and occasionally he wrote them a letter from London. But he would not permit the boy or his mother to come to England.

Edward said that it was very lonely for them there. The whites inside the compound naturally would have nothing to do with them, nor would they give him a job, and the Negroes did not like his mother, because she had lived for years with a white man, so Edward had no friends in the village, and almost nobody to talk to. Was our boat going to England? Could we take him away with us? Was it true that in America the black people were friendly to the mulatto people? But the white people were bad to them all? Were the white people generally bad to colored people everywhere? Edward said his own father was not bad, but now his father had gone away to England and left him there alone with his mother. What could he do?

Poor kid! He looked very lonely, as he stood on the dock the day our ship hauled anchor. He had taken my address to write me in America, and once, a year later, I had a letter from him, but only one, because I have a way of not answering letters when I don’t know what to say.


Icon for the Public Domain license

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