Classics Circuit Review: The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes

Welcome to The Classics Circuit Harlem Renaissance Tour!

One summer evening a few years ago, my family and I visited our local Dairy Queen.  We ordered ice cream and took our seats at a table.  On the other side of the restaurant, a group of students sat clustered around a few tables, in animated conversation with someone who appeared to be a visiting professor or lecturer.  As we enjoyed our ice cream, we noticed that every other customer who came into the DQ placed their order, and then left to enjoy their treats.  This seemed odd.  There’s no outdoor seating, nor is the scenery particularly fine.  And there’s a drive-through window for those who don’t intend to hang around.  Then my husband and I noticed something:  the customers taking their food outside were all white; the group of students were all black.  Could it be that people felt so uncomfortable in the presence of this group? We were shocked and disappointed in our “neighbors.”

Langston Hughes while attending Lincoln University (source: Wikipedia)

The students were from Lincoln University, “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent” (Education for Freedom, by Horace Mann Bond, 1976).   Today I’m featuring poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who came to Lincoln after a period of time abroad, and  graduated in 1929.  Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, using the written word to celebrate and raise awareness of working class black people.  He is best known for his poetry; one of my favorites is:

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

For the Harlem Renaissance Tour, I chose a short story collection by Hughes.  My review follows.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ’em ain’t good — leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ’em, nothin’ a-tall.” (From Berry, p. 181)

This slim volume of fourteen stories explores the myriad of ways in which white people in America demonstrate prejudice against blacks.  Published in 1933, most of the stories take place in that time period, and are set in either New York City or the rural South.  In some the racism is overt and violent (think lynchings), but prejudice can be subtle as well.  Take, for example, the maid whose family keeps her waiting on Christmas Eve and then is unable to pay her full wages, never thinking of the impact this has on the maid and her young son.  Or the single woman living alone, who is so confused and conflicted by her feelings for the black janitor in her apartment building, that she is compelled to move.

There were no happy endings here.  Even the stories that satirize whites made me squirm more than smile.  In fact, I was able to read no more than 3 stories in a single sitting, and was glad I had other reading material close at hand.  Hughes writes well; the intensity was just hard to take.  And after a while, it even began to feel a bit repetitious.  The situations and characters were different, but the behaviors and outcomes were similar:  black characters were subservient, whites were either oblivious or overtly racist, and things always ended badly.  Readers may want to choose just a few stories to get the essence of this work; in fact, the first three are representative:

  • Cora Unashamed: a woman who has worked for a white family all her life.  She is treated somewhat respectfully, until she begins to speak out about a family member’s pregnancy.
  • Slave on a Block: profiles a white couple who “went in for Negroes … a race that was already too charming and naïve and lovely for words.”  This story was the most squirm-inducing for me.
  • Home:  a young violinist returns to Missouri after several years in Europe, and encounters prejudice he had not experienced abroad.  The ending is intense and difficult.

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16 thoughts on “Classics Circuit Review: The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes

  1. The book I’m reading for this circuit, Home to Harlem, by Claude McKay, was not very happy either, and I felt the way you did while reading. I don’t know if these writers had white readers in mind when they wrote these pieces, but perhaps discomfort was their aim?

  2. This sounds fascinating, but very difficult to read. :/ I LOVE that poem you shared. I’m often intimidated by poets, but now I want to read more of Hughes, so thanks. 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing about this collection of short stories and for adding to the Harlem Renaissance Tour. I teach high school English, and one of my favorite things is teaching poetry from the Harlem Renaissance after we finish reading To Kill a Mockingbird. It is so nice to encounter an honest review of Hughes’ stories.

    I came across your blog on Paperback Reader’s blog, and I’m so glad I did!

  4. @Suzanne, I think you’re right about the discomfort being intentional. Reading the Hughes book, there were a couple of stories with a really high “squirm factor,” because if I was honest with myself, they hit closest to home. It’s the people who don’t squirm that I’d worry about!

    @Eva, I’m not much of a poetry reader either. I read a book of Hughes poetry a while ago just because of the local connection, and I was surprised that I liked it!

    @Jo, thanks for stopping by! What a great idea for your class to read HR poetry after TKAM. I’m sure that stimulates a lot of discussion.

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  6. With respect to Laura and Suzanne, in regards to the “squirm” factor, imagine how it must have felt for the people actually living through these experiences. Frankly, I think it’s a narcissistic attitude to believe that the intent was to upset whites. Granted the stories are upsetting but I am hard pressed to believe that was his aim. I believe he was merely a mirror of the times.

    • Angelina, thanks for sharing your perspective. It’s been more than a year since I read this book but it continues to make me stop and think, as does your comment.

  7. I am doing my thesis on “The Ways of White Folks.” Hughes was not writing to offend anyone. He was writing about the interaction between blacks and whites in working class America during the 1930’s during the Great Depression. It is very political and if you read it closely you will find that he explicitly mentions major political events that mark the age of the Depression. If you teach this in class make sure you mention: The Bonus Marchers (Home), The Scottsboro Boys Case and Camp Hill Shootings (Father and Son), and The Great Depression (Passing). This collection belongs alongside literature that carries some of the same themes such as “The Grapes of Wrath” by Steinbeck and “Imitation of Life” by Fannie Hurst – who Hughes knew personally. It is a great read.

    • Jason, thank you for your comments! This review is consistently the most-visited post on my blog, even 18 months later, but those visitors rarely leave a comment. I appreciate the insight you’ve brought from your research and your guide for teachers. Best of luck with your thesis!

  8. That these issues (even the patterns of behaviour described in the DQ) exist, still, should make us squirm. As a reader and writer, I am a fan of the Harlem Renaissance period (Zora and Langston are perhaps my favourites though I’ve also enjoyed works by Nella Larson, Claude McKay and others) because of how unflinchingly they pull back the curtain of the inner lives of black folks in that time. Art entertains, yes, but it also stirs things in us, provokes thought, gives insight to the human condition. I think that’s a good thing. It’s good as well that Langston’s writing captures so beautifully the rhythm and soul of the Blues. For me the beauty of his language makes him a joy to read no matter how difficult the subject matter.

      • Yes, love his poetry! That’s how I was introduced to him before discovering his novel Not Without Laughter and then the Simple stories and other short stories along the way.

        Btw, your blog makes for interesting reading…bookmarking. Hope you’ll check mine out as well http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com It’s really the blog of a writing programme I run but also includes in the Blogger on Books and Reading Room my musings on books as I read them and links to interesting reads I come across.

  9. Sweet blog! I found it while surfing around on Yahoo News. Do you have any suggestions
    on how to get listed in Yahoo News? I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there! Appreciate it

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