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.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
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.