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.
During 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The Book of Harlan, a story of another young man, in part inspired by the author’s grandfather and pulling on historical references of the time, both general to the population and specific to her own family.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…
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
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.
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