I: Twenty-One

Time to Leave

When spring came, and the banks of the Hudson were a fresh, clean green, and the New York-Albany boats appeared on the river, I thought it was about time to leave the dead ships and find a vessel that was moving. So I quit the fleet and went back to New York, determined now to get on a boat actually going somewhere. It didn’t take long. My red-headed steward gave me a splendid recommendation: “Competent, courteous, capable, trust-worthy, and efficient.” So I took his letter to a shipping office and that very day was assigned a boat sailing for Africa—providing the Filipino steward didn’t mind a Negro in his crew. He didn’t, so I got the job.

I’d left a box of books in Harlem in the fall, and before we sailed I went after them. I brought them aboard ship with me. But when I opened them up and looked at them that night off Sandy Hook, they seemed too much like everything I had known in the past, like the attics and basements in Cleveland, like the lonely nights in Toluca, like the dormitory at Columbia, like the furnished room in Harlem, like too much reading all the time when I was a kid, like life isn’t, as described in romantic prose; so that night, I took them all out on deck and threw them overboard. It was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart—for it wasn’t only the books that I wanted to throw away, but everything unpleasant and miserable out of my past: the memory of my father, the poverty and uncertainties of my mother’s life, the stupidities of color-prejudice, black in a white world, the fear of not finding a job, the bewilderment of no one to talk to about things that trouble you, the feeling of always being controlled by others—by parents, by employers, by some outer necessity not your own. All those things I wanted to throw away. To be free of. To escape from. I wanted to be a man on my own, control my own life, and go my own way. I was twenty-one. So I threw the books in the sea.

Whiffs of salt spray blew in my face. It was dark. Up on the poop, the wind smelt good, but I was sleepy, so I went down a pair of narrow steps into the cabin with George and Puerto Rico, and we laughed about George’s landlady, who didn’t know he had left Harlem for Africa that evening.

Then I went to bed.


Icon for the Public Domain license

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