How Langston Hughes Brought His Radical Vision to the Novel
For a writer like Langston Hughes, who made a name for himself as a poet before the age of 21, his debut novel, “Not Without Laughter,” feels like an effort to stake out a bigger claim on his abilities, to create artistic and thematic breathing room. Arna Bontemps, celebrated poet and friend to Hughes, described “Not Without Laughter” as the novel that both Hughes and his readers knew he had to write, coming as it did on the heels of Hughes’s two well-received poetry collections, “The Weary Blues” (1926) and “Fine Clothes to the Jew” (1927). Hughes published these collections while a student at Lincoln University, and he released “Not Without Laughter” in 1930, shortly after graduating. “By the date of his first book of prose Hughes had become for many a symbol of the black renaissance,” Bontemps writes. The stakes were high, then, for the young man born in Joplin, Mo. He had to deliver.
“Not Without Laughter” crystallizes some of the themes introduced in Hughes’s first two poetry collections and examines in detail subjects he would return to throughout his decades-long career, among them the experiences of working-class and poor blacks, the importance of black music to black life, the beauty of black language and the trap of respectability. It begins as a tale of family life, following the Williamses — the matriarch, Aunt Hager; her daughters, Harriet, Annjee (Annjelica) and Tempy; and Annjee’s husband, Jimboy — in the small Kansas town of Stanton. After establishing the conflicts and desires of the adults, the narrative becomes a bildungsroman. Here it finds its true purpose: chronicling the upbringing of Sandy, the son of Jimboy and Annjee, as he struggles to forge an identity outside of the boxes the white and black worlds have put him in, and tries to find stability within his increasingly unstable home.
Each family member provides an example of how Sandy might navigate his world. Sandy’s father is a blues man, a guitar picker with an itch for traveling, who leaves his wife and his son for months on end. Sandy’s mother works long hours as a domestic for an exacting white woman and comes home so exhausted and lovesick that she doesn’t have much attention to spare for her young son. Soon enough she leaves Stanton for good, determined to stay by Jimboy’s side and find happiness in their reunion.
Aunt Hager is Sandy’s primary caretaker, and it is her grandson in whom she invests all her hopes for her family line: “I’s gwine raise one chile right yet, if de Lawd lets me live — just one chile right!” In an unkind light Hager can be read as a Mammy, a former slave who chose to stay by her mistress’s side for several years after emancipation rather than “scatter like buckshot,” as most freed people did, and who now washes the clothes of white people and tends to their illnesses when called. Hughes takes care to flesh out Hager’s motivations, which prove to be more complicated than unblinking servitude. Hager finds sanity and solace in forgiveness, in assuming the best in people who are too ignorant to reciprocate that courtesy. Her benevolence is her own existential armor. Hate “closes up de sweet door to life an’ makes ever’thing small an’ mean an’ dirty,” Hager insists. Her beliefs stand in stark contrast to those of many other negroes, including her own children.
Hager’s youngest daughter, Harriet, is beautiful, and has a voice made to sing the blues. She gives her mother and Annjee’s way of life a chance — working at a country club where old white men make passes at her — but ultimately opts out, hoping to escape Stanton altogether. She runs away with the carnival,then returns to town and dabbles in sex work before finally getting a break as a singer. Her story begins as one of classic teenage rebellion but ends as an example of fierce determination.
In his famous essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes expresses fondness for “the low-down folks, the so-called common element.” Poor African-Americans made up a majority of the black population but were rarely depicted as fully realized characters in the serious literature of the day. “They furnish a wealth of colorful, distinctive material for any artist because they still hold their own individuality in the face of American standardizations,” Hughes writes. A writer who extols the virtues of a group of people based on any demographic denominator runs the risk of flattening or essentializing his characters, but in the face of popular novels centered on middle- and upper-class black experiences, such as those by his contemporary Jessie Redmon Fauset, Hughes’s call for nuanced consideration of working-class (and even out-of-work) black people was noteworthy. The early decades of the 20th century were also a period when “color mania” was part of day-to-day black social and professional life, with lighter skin seen as correlating with increased romantic prospects and more opportunities for upward mobility. Hughes’s focus on main characters with darker skin tones — something we are reminded of throughout the novel — seems like a conscious statement against racial assimilation and conformity.
In reviewing Hughes’s first autobiography, “The Big Sea” (1940), Richard Wright recalls Hughes’s first two poetry collections being greeted with shock by the black reading public. “Since then the realistic position assumed by Hughes has become the dominant outlook of all those Negro writers who have something to say,” Wright observes. Indeed what stays with the reader longer than the overall narrative arc of “Not Without Laughter” is the frequent, unexpected uses of imagery and language that make the characters and their lives feel real. Sandy recalls Aunt Hager, a woman who frowns on secular dancing — even if that dancing takes place in her own yard — whirling round and round at a revival in religious ecstasy. With the same amount of fondness he recalls his aunt Harriet “balling-the-jack” to Jimboy’s guitar music in the yard. Both Aunt Hager and Sister Johnson tend to pronounce the word “idea” as “idee,” a subtle nod to what the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “the linguistic legacy of slavery.” During conversations between black characters, the word “nigger” rolls off their tongues often — sometimes pejoratively, sometimes humorously, but more often as a general descriptor — and it’s a testament to Hughes’s ear for black language that we are never in doubt about the intended tone. This focus on rendering realistically how black folks behave among themselves, whether or not such behavior would be considered proper in other contexts, is one of the novel’s greatest achievements.
Like his one-time collaborator and contemporary Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes takes an anthropological approach to setting and character development. The town of Stanton where “Not Without Laughter” is set is similar to Lawrence, the small Kansas town where Hughes grew up with his maternal grandmother while his father worked in Mexico and his mother lived in Topeka. It was the sort of place where blacks and whites might live in close proximity to one another, but where a black boy would avoid walking by his white neighbor’s front lawn for fear of having insults and slurs — or worse — hurled at him. Like the novel’s hero, Sandy, Hughes grew up with a largely absent father and an interest in books. Already a budding public figure by the time of the novel’s release, Hughes likely saw his own life pulling him farther and farther away from the small-town Midwestern world that raised him. Reading “Not Without Laughter,” one can’t help feeling as if Hughes had a desperate need to get all of his early cultural memories down on paper, from the “sooty gray-green light” that turns to blackness before a tornado touches down, to the possum, peach preserves and yams that make up a humble Thanksgiving dinner.
Sandy is an ideal protagonist for a novel so interested in place and culture — an observant boy with a penchant for finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. He listens intently during warm nights spent on the porch with Aunt Hager, with an occasional visit from Sister Johnson or the speechifying Madam de Carter. He overhears grown black folks parsing out the psychology of whites who want to keep blacks close to them — nursing their children, preparing their meals — but always beneath them, and withholds his own judgment, already wise enough to know he doesn’t yet know enough. As a teenager Sandy sweeps up at a neighborhood barbershop, a place “filled with loud man-talk and smoke and laughter,” and gets a crude sexual education from the conversations of the shop’s day laborer customers and barbers, as well as plenty of lessons in playing the dozens — “the protective art of turning back a joke.” He inhabits this new space the same way he inhabits every other one, simultaneously attuned to its peculiarities and somewhat set apart.
In “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes addresses the issue of respectability, the belief that promoting only the best, brightest and most palatable forms of blackness might somehow temper white bigotry. “‘Oh, be respectable, write about nice people, show how good we are,’ say the Negroes,” he laments. The respectability argument is so attractive to some that nearly eight decades later it still rears its head with regard to black art and representation. For Sandy, the pressure to be respectable comes from Aunt Tempy, Aunt Hager’s oldest child, who avoids visiting her washerwoman mother in an effort to preserve the illusion of her middle-class upbringing. After Hager’s death, Sandy moves in with Tempy, and with his usual levelheadedness is able to see the futility of her and her husband’s way of thinking: They look down on the Baptist church for its “nigger music” but are still made to use the servant’s entrance at some of the town’s finer white establishments. Sandy is nobody’s fool, though: He sees the benefits their lifestyle affords him, like his own room and the freedom to read as much as he wants.
“Not Without Laughter” is an early Great Migration novel. Many blacks in Kansas arrived from the South after emancipation, and with the advent of automation and the decline of agricultural work, blacks kept traveling north and west in search of opportunities. A migration narrative is necessarily a story of change. The author’s task is to replicate the nostalgia and hope his characters feel as they set out for new futures, or the fear, resentment and loneliness of those left behind. Jimboy, the novel’s most frequent migrant, sings a song that encapsulates both sides of the experience:
I got a mule to ride. I got a mule to ride. Down in the South somewhere. I got a mule to ride.
His sister-in-law, Harriet, responds:
O, don’t you leave me here. Babe, don’t you leave me here. Dog-gone yo’ comin’ back! Said don’t you leave me here.
As a depiction of a period of transition, the migration novel often makes a priority of capturing life as it is led in its very moment, since there’s no telling what might change when characters find themselves in new landscapes. The changing way of life between one generation and the next is a persistent point of tension in “Not Without Laughter.” Aunt Hager pumps water for her laundry washing, as well as for the cooking and cleaning, yet a few miles away Tempy lives with electric lights and indoor plumbing. Hager sees hotels as breeding grounds for vice and sin, but both Harriet and Sandy jump at the chance to work at one, motivated by a paycheck. Hughes uses the songs and dances of Jimboy and Harriet as well as the church revival culture of Hager and Annjee — in scenes taking place on the same night, less than a half mile apart — to depict the crossroads between the traditions that have given expression to the community in the past and those that might fill that role in the future.
Sandy’s father, Jimboy, is caught in a cycle of desiring to be on the road to find better work (and freedom from responsibility) and of nostalgia for the culture and familiarity of the South. Jimboy’s wanderlust is offensive to Hager, but Sandy idolizes his father, begging him to teach him how to box and fish and play guitar. The scene of Jimboy about to cut out for the road once again — this time for good — is one of the most poignant in the book. Sandy discovers his father “sitting dejectedly on the well-stoop in the sunshine, with his head in his hands,” his posture conveying the sort of defeat only a man intending to abandon his family feels. The father takes his son in his arms and kisses him awkwardly. He does not say goodbye. Later that afternoon Sandy discovers Jimboy has left town.
What prevents Hughes’s characters from being mere archetypes of working-class black folks, or of the Great Migration, is their ability to change and respond to one another. “Not Without Laughter” is a novel not without forgiveness. Its characters ultimately prize family over their own ideological resolve, though it takes some longer than others to get there. After hearing news of Harriet’s arrest for streetwalking, Hager doesn’t speak her daughter’s name for some time, but she does not disown her; Hager’s dying wish is for Harriet to be happy. Even Tempy’s taking in of Sandy can be seen as an attempt to pull her family close again after keeping her distance for so long. The one exception is Jimboy, who remains elusive throughout the novel, a father figure always out of reach.
A poet who writes fiction can imbue his prose with a considerable amount of magic. For Hughes, his magic is an appreciation for the lyrics and rhythms of jazz and blues. It’s one thing to appreciate the cultural aspects of these musical forms, yet another to home in on the lyrics, the power of the repetition employed therein, the subtle turns of phrase and uses of wit.
“Not Without Laughter” includes lyrics to songs that are mournful, bawdy, vengeful and downright silly. They underscore the importance Hughes felt they played in black life and consciousness. One gets the sense that Sandy’s upbringing has been shaped just as much by overhearing these songs as by Aunt Hager’s teachings. As the novel progresses, Sandy’s thoughts are rendered in musical streams of consciousness, quickly turning from anticipation to curiosity to anger to desire. The result is a realistic portrayal of the rhythms of a young man’s inner life: Sandy lies in bed at night and riffs on his own past and future.
In perhaps the most peculiar scene of the novel, Sandy is pursued by a solicitous older man, a “yellow man with a womanish kind of voice,” on the streets of Chicago. Sandy quickly ascertains that the man is one of the “queer fellows” who try to convince boys to come up to their rooms. The scene ends with Sandy running away, but Hughes writes that Sandy wondered what such men did with the boys they seduced. “Curious, he’d like to find out — but he was afraid.” For the time period, to acknowledge homosexual activity, and to allow that it might pique one’s interest, was quite rare. The scene would remain one of Hughes’s more direct engagements with the topic of homosexuality in his prose until the 1961 short story “Blessed Assurance.”
The tragedy and senselessness of racism is felt throughout “Not Without Laughter,” and Hughes takes care to show how it manifests itself in ways small and large. Sandy cries after he overhears Annjee’s boss, Mrs. Rice, berate his mother as she packs up leftovers for him. When Sandy and his friends are turned away from the Children’s Day Party at the theme park, the other kids talk loudly about the injustice of it, and Sandy just keeps muttering, “I suppose they didn’t mean colored kids,” a feeble attempt to make sense of a surprising and hurtful situation. His friend Buster plans to pass as white and tells the gang that if one day they should run into him in a big city, to act like they don’t know him. Colorism seeps down to every aspect of life, even those moments made for pleasure, as at Benbow’s dance: “‘High yallers, draw nigh! Brown-skins, come near!’ somebody squalled. ‘But black gals, stay where you are!’”
Hughes would not write another novel for nearly 30 years, until 1958, but four years after the publication of “Not Without Laughter” he released the story collection “The Ways of White Folks,” a series of vignettes about the interaction between white and black people, often with grim, moralistic endings. By this time he had parted ways with his white benefactor Charlotte Mason; his resentment over the split might explain why these stories reach for concrete conclusions that do not similarly burden his novel.
“Not Without Laughter” is a debut in the best of ways: It covers uncharted territory, it compels its readers to see part of the world anew, and it prizes exploration over pat conclusion. Hughes accesses the universal — how all of us love and dream and laugh and cry — by staying faithful to the particulars of his characters and their way of life. With this book the young poet from Joplin, Mo., manages to deliver something more valuable than simply an admirable debut — he gives his readers and contemporaries a guide for careful consideration of the lives of everyday black people. Such a guide is still useful to readers and writers today. Perhaps now more than ever.
Angela Flournoy’s novel, “The Turner House,” was a National Book Award finalist in 2015. This essay is adapted from her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of “Not Without Laughter,” by Langston Hughes, which will be published this month.