I: Twenty-One


I didn’t like Columbia. It was too big. It was not fun, like being in high school. You didn’t get to know anybody, hardly. The buildings looked like factories.

By the end of my first term I got to know Chun, a Chinese boy, pretty well. And a boy named Best, whose father made pencils and who lived on Riverside Drive. And a very rich boy named Craig in my dormitory, who always asked me to help him do his French or write his English themes. The rich boy used to know lots of chorus girls and sometimes, after the Broadway shows were over, he would drive up to the Hartley Hall windows on the Amsterdam Avenue side with a taxi-full of girls, call some of his pals and they would all go out for a ride. He would never call me, of course, but if he saw a light in my window, he might yell in: “See you tomorrow, Lang, third hour, and we’ll get on them French verbs. I don’t need no verbs tonight.”

Like me, Chun, the Chinese boy, didn’t like the big University, either. He said white people were much nicer in the missionary school in China from which he came. Here nobody paid any attention to him, and the girls wouldn’t dance with him at dances. (I didn’t expect them to dance with me, but he did, not being used to American ways.)

Nobody asked him to join a frat and nobody asked me, but I didn’t expect anyone to. When I tried out for the Spectator, they assigned me to gather frat house and society news, an assignment impossible for a colored boy to fill, as they knew. I remember Corey Ford was on the editorial board. And there was a pleasant young man around named Charles A. Wagner, a poet, who later became Book Editor of the New York Mirror. But they were upper classmen and, I suppose, not particularly interested in the relationship of Chinese and Negroes to the rest of the student body, anyhow. It was all a little like my senior year in high school—except more so—when one noticed that the kids began to get a bit grown and girl-conscious and standoffish and anti-Negro in the American way, that increases when kids take on the accepted social habits.

As for the instructors at Columbia whom I knew, the only one who interested me much was a Mr. Wasson, who read Mencken aloud all the time. In physics, I never understood a thing. And the instructor would never explain. He always said you had to work it out for yourself—which isn’t so easy if you haven’t got that kind of a mind or anybody to help you. Higher mathematics were like a Chinese puzzle. And French was taught to an enormous class, with the instructor having each one recite by going down the roll with the speed of an express train—evidently so he could get some sort of mark down for everybody before the bell rang.

Living in New York was higher than my father had anticipated, and he asked every month for an accounting of my expenses, penny by penny. Since I had always spent it all, “All gone” seemed to me a sufficient accounting to give, simple and clear. But it did not please my father.

About that time, my mother and step-father had parted again. My mother came to New York to live, so I had to use my allowance to help her until she found a job. My father kept on wondering why I ran out of money so quickly. But I didn’t have enough for college, my mother, and me, too.

What an unpleasant winter! I didn’t like Columbia, nor the students, nor anything I was studying! So I didn’t study. I went to shows, read books, attended lectures at the Rand School under Ludwig Lewisohn and Heywood Broun, missed an important exam in the spring to go to Bert Williams’s funeral, sat up in the gallery night after night at Shuffle Along, adored Florence Mills, and went to Chinatown with Chun. I even acquired a small Mandarin vocabulary.

Of course, I finished the year without honors. I had no intention of going further at Columbia, anyhow. I felt that I would never turn out to be what my father expected me to be in return for the amount he invested. So I wrote him and told him I was going to quit college and go to work on my own, and that he needn’t send me any more money.

He didn’t. He didn’t even write again.


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