Langston Hughes on "Traveling Light"

As our trip to Baja California Sur nears (more here), I keep revisiting Langston Hughes’ I Wonder as I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey. In this book, the poet describes a rite of passage at sea: as he travels across the Atlantic to Europe by ship, he releases his books into the ocean.

He writes,

“It was like throwing a million bricks out of my heart when I threw the books into the water . . . all the books I had had at Columbia [University], and all the books I had lately bought to read.”

What Hughes feels after this moment is telling. He takes a deep breath. He feels “that nothing could ever happen to me that I didn’t want to happen”.  By releasing his books, he travels lightly – both physically and emotionally.

When I read this passage, I always want to know more. Why was tossing the books into a sea was such a relief? I want to know more about Hughes’ relationship – or attachment – them. What memories or expectations did they hold? What gave them so much weight? I want his analysis – and I want to analyze.

Thoughts and feelings: when Hughes surrenders the books to sea, he surrenders himself. He delivers himself. From an ancestor perspective, a part of him returns to the very ocean enslaved Africans forcibly crossed generations ago, as he makes a reverse journey across that very ocean. His moment evokes Yemaya, Oshun, Mamiwata, and other spiritual beings whose realm is water.

But the deeper beauty of this moment is Hughes' lack of analysis or explanation. How he feels is enough. He invites readers to feel alive with him. Maybe he offers so few words, because that’s what he’s got. The feeling from freedom is all there is – and all that matters.

As I read this moment again, I want that sense of freedom. I desire presence. Embodiment. Life. These were no small feelings for Hughes, a young Black man in the 1930s, and these are big desires for me as a Black woman in the 21st century.

I’m not letting go of books, but . . .

Of all the “stuff” we’re releasing when we leave for Mexico, books are the one thing we don’t plan on giving away. At least not all of them. Some are going to dear friends, some to donation, and the rest to storage.

I can offer some reasons. We’ll need these books when we return from Mexico for writing and research. Many of them are hard to find or out of print, especially those by authors of color. When people come to our house, our books become part of the conversations. They’re part of our relationships, one way I share inspiration forward and connect with community.

On a deeper level, these books are part of my healing journey. They’re central to my relationship with myself and community. They’ve cultivated my social and soul consciousness. Without them, I wouldn’t be writing on this blog. Books are one way I connect with ancestor wisdom. They’re one way I share inspiration forward, when it’s time to pass one on. And as much as I try e-books, I still love the feel, smell, and experience of a bound volume.

This all said, Hughes’ moment at sea has me asking - how free, present, and alive I can be? What possessions are heavy for me? What does need to go?