Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) and The Harlem Renaissance

Although well-known as a poet and pioneer of the Harlem Renaissance movement – an intellectual, social, musical and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City, from 1918 until mid 1930’s, Langston Hughes also wrote Not Without Laughter, a semi-autobiographical novel, now considered a classic.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925During the Harlem Renaissance, there was an outpouring of creativity, an expression of how African Americans sought social, political, and artistic change in the US, also influencing francophone black writers from African and Caribbean colonies living in Paris. This movement turned attention to and invoked pride, in the lives of Black Americans.

An anthology of essays, poetry and fiction produced during this era, edited by Alain Locke, reflects the voice of middle class African American citizens who desired  equal civil rights like their white, middle class counterparts. Langston Hughes however sought to give voice to and remained a humble advocate for the lower, working class.

His authenticity, appreciation and ability to see beauty in simplicity, evoked through the power of his words, proved him to be one of modern literature’s most revered and versatile African-American authors.

Not Without Laughter, written while he was a student at university, and inspired by his own youthful experiences, provides us a privileged insight into the kind of characters who inhabited his world and imagination, giving us today this powerful, timeless novel.

Books That Connect Threads

As I began reading this I was reminded of Bernice McFadden’s The Book of Harlan, a story of another young man, in part inspired by the author’s grandfather and pulling on historical references of the time, both general to the population and specific to her own family.

Here it’s semi autobiographical, as Hughes writes of a boy named Sandy, like himself and like Harlan, raised by a grandmother who was more worldly and wise, women with ideas about raising grandsons to reach their better potential, while their daughters were off following husband(s) who liked the road and moved from place to place in search of their dreams. Being a young couple and trying to make a living was challenge enough, the grandmother, though often a working woman herself, was a wise and practical choice for keeping a boy on track towards a worthy future.

When I read more about Langston Hughes, I was reminded too of Audre Lorde and her essays in Sister Outsider, of her travels and observations in Russia, looking at that foreign country through the lens of being black and a woman; Hughes too was curious about the world beyond his home town, travelling beyond his home and country.

Hughes rode steamships to West Africa, toured the American South, traveled to Spain to cover the Civil War, rode the Trans-Siberian Railway, and saw his own reputation shift from Harlem Renaissance star in the 1920s to Communist activist poet in the 1930s to public figure in the 1960s…

Book Review

Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age story that introduces us to Sandy Rogers who lives with his grandmother who everyone refers to as Aunt Hager and his mother Annjee, who works as a housekeeper for a rich white family, while his father Jimboy traverses the country pursuing a living as a musician.

He was a dreamy-eyed boy who had largely grown to his present age under the dominant influence of women – Annjee, Harriett, his grandmother – because Jimboy had been so seldom home.

It’s 1930’s in small town Kansas and Hughes creates a vivid portrait of African-American family life in a racially divided society, where some try to make the most of the way things are without changing it, some try to help others no matter their colour or creed, some aspire to be like what they perceive are successful white folk and Sandy observes all, in the process of making up his mind about all that he witnesses.

Eventually Annjee follows her husband, whom she only ever sees through rose-tinted glasses believing that one day things will change and their fortunes will change. Sandy gets his knowledge of a man’s world from his part-time jobs at the barber shop and as a bellboy in a local hotel.

Aunt Hager as they affectionately call her, is a great character and the one who truly formed Sandy into the quiet, highly observant child and teenager he becomes, a hardworking washerwoman she is always there for those who are ailing, and worked every day of her life to the last.

We follow Sandy through his opportunities and disappointments, his observations of how his people are treated and the strangeness of those who try to be what they aren’t, moving up in a world that makes some of them ashamed of their humble beginnings and the humble trying to stay good, not allowing themselves to indulge in certain types of disreputable fun should it corrupt them.

Racism is ever present, like the shadow that projects itself in full sunlight, unquestioned, accepted and quickly forgotten by white children whose psyche is undamaged by its selective vengeance. Sandy sees everything, choosing his revolutionary acts wisely, knowing when to run, where to find safety  and paying homage where it is due.

Even when he is at a loss, his new situation offers him the opportunity to learn anew, seeing more of the world his people inhabit, the consequences of the various choices they make, so that by the time he too must make a choice, he is as well informed as he can be.

In the home of the social-climbing Tempy, Sandy discovers a treasure trove of literature, which he eagerly consumes. Life  blossoms for Sandy, who, as he excels at school, grows both in stature and self-confidence.  – from the Introduction by Maya Angelou

Langston Hughes The Racial Mountain Not Without Laughter

Langston Hughes

It’s a heartfelt story that leaves a sense of regret as the last page is turned, when Sandy is deciding whether to leave school as suggested by his mother, to support her, or return to his studies as suggested by his Aunt, who like her mother wishes him to have that chance at bettering himself.

His observations of family dynamics, of the impact of race, community connection, the culture of music and the complications of young love are portrayed vividly and without judgement, leaving it to the reader to note the obvious.

Ultimately the title says it all, the way to cope, the example he admires, the man who finds something in his day to laugh about or someone to laugh with, finds joy right there.

A rich and important work, Hughes shines a light on the black American experience, paying homage to those who formed and informed him, enabling him to leave his own legacy for which we are fortunate to have insight into.

I, too, am America.

Further Reading

Poem: I, Too by Langston Hughes

Essay: Langston Hughes landmark essay The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain

Article, New Yorker: The Elusive Langston Hughes by Hilton Als (2015)

An Introduction to the Author: Langston Hughes 101 by Benjamin Voigt

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Totally brilliant and original, what a voice, a narrative and an insight into a woman’s desire for fulfilment.

yin_yang_by_fallen_eyeIf you have read or were considering reading Marlon James Booker winning A Brief History of Seven Killings, then this is the Yin to his Yang, this is the feminine yearn to his masculine ambition.

Immersed in the dynamic culture of the American South, its language, traditions and folklore and equally fascinated by it, Zora Neale Hurston had instant access to a rich depth of stories, songs, incidents, idiomatic phrases and metaphors and an adept ear for the rhythm of speech patterns. With her literary intelligence and skill, she brings it together with remarkable power and beauty to the written page.

Their Eyes were Watching God is an American classic, the esteemed author Toni Morrison called her “One of the greatest writers of our time”, though she may be lesser known beyond those shores. There has been much written about her work and of this particular novel, criticized by feminists at the time of publication, yet come to be more appreciated and understood with time.

Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” revived interest in the author and since then there have been numerous new editions published. It was originally published in 1937.

Zora Neale Hurston tells the story of Janie, a girl raised by her Nanny, who was an ex-slave and therefore wanting to protect her daughter and grand-daughter from the things she feared, which amounted to marriage to a man with land or money or to live under the wings of a good, white family.

zoraUnable to protect her daughter, who was raped by her schoolteacher, her focus moves to Janie, whom the daughter leaves her with. As soon as adolescence beckons she arranges for her to marry an older farmer with land. Janie dreams of love and fulfilment and when mentions not finding it in this marriage is reprimanded by her grandmother for her romantic notions.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

She moves on and marries Joe Sparks who takes her to a new town in Florida, a town built by black people for black people. It isn’t as Joe expects, so he sets about continuing its creation, getting himself elected as mayor and becoming a wealthy man. Janie becomes his showpiece, working in the shop, however he curtails her interactions with the community, thwarting her ability to be herself, even making her cover her hair due to his jealousy.

“She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market place to sell.  Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sang all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed.  So they beat him down to nothing but sparks, but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

Finally, her quest will become fulfilled, though not without its share of life’s ordinary and extraordinary sufferings, when she meets Tea Cake and they manage to ride life’s roller coaster of events and emotions, working together to deal with the demons and living their dream.

“Dis is uh love game.  Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”

The excellent afterword of the Virago edition I read, says the following to explain one of the reasons this novel has attributed such notoriety today and why it is that she achieved something so rare.

Black women had been portrayed as characters in numerous novels by blacks and non-blacks. But these portraits were limited by the stereotypical images of, on the one hand, the ham-fisted matriarch, strong and loyal in the defense of the white family she serves (but unable to control or protect her own family without the guidance of some white person), and, on the other, the amoral, instinctual slut. Between these two stereotypes stood the tragic mulatto: too refined and sensitive to live under the repressive conditions endured by ordinary blacks and too coloured to enter the white world.

Even the few idealised portraits of black women evoked these negative stereotypes. The idealisations were morally uplifting and politically laudable, but their literary importance rests upon just that: the correctness of their moral and political stance. Their value lies in their illuminations of the society’s workings and their insights into the ways oppression is institutionalised. They provide, however, few insights into character or consciousness. And when we go (to use Alice Walker’s lovely phrase) in search of our mother’s gardens, it’s not really to learn who trampled on them or how or even why – we usually know that already. Rather, it’s to learn what our mothers planted there, what they thought as they sowed, and how they survived the blighting of so many fruits. Zora Hurston’s life and work present us with insights into just these concerns.” Sherley Anne Williams

Zora Neale Hurston’s depiction of Janie’s life provides a wonderful insight into the character and consciousness of a woman of her era, drawing from her own experience, though the character of Janie has a different personality to Hurston, providing a look not so much into the experiences, but of the yearnings and emotional life of women, their quest for fulfilment and self-discovery and though it’s not without obstacles, allows a little light to shine on those moments where her life does reach that bitter-sweet destination, leaving wisdom in its wake.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (1892-1960) was born in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in America. Her life there, nine years of wanderings is described in her book Dust Tracks on the Road. She studied at Howard University and began to write, attracting the attention of the Harlem Renaissance with her essays and short fiction and won a scholarship to Barnard College where she studied Cultural Anthropology, subsequently spending four years researching folklore on the South and publishing another five books including this novel and a collection of tales, songs, games and voodoo practices from the time.

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