And How like a Woman:
Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks
Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks, originally published in 1933, is a collection of 14 short stories portraying collisions between blacks and whites. Among the many characters Hughes created are some indelible portraits of African American women that explore how race and class affected their lives. This article discusses his female characters in three stories from the collection, which are included in the Works of Langston Hughes.
And How Like a Woman:
Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks
By Joyce Ann Joyce
Chicago State University
[Note: This article reveals several significant plot points and story endings. You may wish to read it after reading the stories discussed.]
Set in Iowa, New York, New Jersey, the Florida coast, New England, Ohio, Chicago, and Georgia, Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks emerges as a collection of satirical short stories that gives a comprehensive glimpse of the various manifestations of race relations throughout the United States and within all the different class strata of white society. Cited in Volume I of Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes, some of the reviews of the collection demonstrate the highly mixed reactions of white readers to any black literature that acutely depicts white hypocrisy, corruption, or insensitivity. While Herschel Brickell in the North American Review commented that the collection represented "some of the best stories that have appeared in this country in years," and Horace Gregory asserted that the stories revealed a "spiritual prose style and an accurate understanding of human character," Sherwood Anderson, on the other hand, wrote, in the Nation, "My hat is off to you in relation to your own race." Anderson, according to Rampersad, thought that the whites in Hughes's collection were caricatures. "And Martha Gruening, a prominent white liberal, deplored the fact that [Hughes] saw whites as either sordid and cruel, or silly and sentimental."
Both the negative and highly positive reviews testify to the breadth and depth of Hughes's collection. The fourteen stories that make up The Ways of White Folks explore the psychological depth of the multileveled behavioral codes that govern the interaction between blacks and whites and that describe the inferiority/superiority paradigm that makes up white consciousness. The reaction of white readers and critics attests to the degree to which the title of the collection draws attention away from Hughes's black characters, whose purpose is to illuminate "the ways of white folk." Because the artistry of Hughes's stories differs greatly from Richard Wright's -- particularly in tone and mood -- we do not quickly see the similarity between Hughes's and Wright's depiction of racism. Although The Ways of White Folks is satirically humorous and progresses through the beautiful merger of prose and poetry, it, too, like much of Wright's naturalistic fiction, reveals a world in which whites do not understand their behavior, in which they are not in touch with themselves, and, thus, in which they are both physically dangerous to blacks and psychologically dangerous to themselves and to blacks.
While Wright's Uncle Tom's Children, published five years after Hughes's collection, features two black women protagonists only (Sarah in "Long Black Song" and Aunt Sue in "Bright and Morning Star"), Hughes's The Ways of White Folks presents numerous black and white women characters, demonstrating the integral role white women play in propagating social and moral racial codes that affect the lives of both black women and men. In fact, a black or a white woman is either the protagonist or a pivotal character in every story in The Ways of White Folks.
In describing the multifaceted manifestations of racism found among all classes of whites across the United States, The Ways of White Folks emerges as an ingenious analysis of the interrelationship between race, class, and gender. Racism, interestingly enough, is a cultural and political phenomenon rooted in the merger of the concepts of race and culture. Whereas race denotes a "local geographic or global human population distinguished as a more or less distinct group by genetically transmitted physical characteristics" or a "group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationalist, or geographical distribution" (American Heritage Dictionary), culture refers to "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population" (American Heritage Dictionary). Racism then signifies the merger of race and culture. In The Ways of White Folks, Langston Hughes adroitly demonstrates how white people with a common history and shared physical characteristics stifle their own lives and those of the blacks around them by continuing the legacy of behavioral patterns and beliefs that propagate their self-hatred, their hypocrisy, and their insensitivity and the paradox of inferiority/superiority that describes their interaction with blacks.
What is perhaps most striking about The Ways of White Folks is both the amount of space Hughes gives to women characters and his depiction of how racism and class have affected their lives. Despite Hughes's lack of any mention of his sexual life in The Big Sea and in I Wonder as I Wander, despite the confusing critical discussions about his alleged homosexuality, and despite his condescending, perhaps even sexist comment "Girls are funny creatures" in reference to Zora Neale Hurston in The Big Sea, his characterizations of both black and white women in The Ways of White Folks reveal a profound mind artistically capable of identifying with the intricacies of female consciousness and of censuring female participation in the cultural behavioral patterns that stifle their humanity. Even though all of the fourteen stories in the collection contain female characters, both black and white, and though eleven of the stories feature black women characters, it is interesting that three of the most powerful and moving stories in the collection have black women as major characters. It is through the experiences of these black women that we can clearly view "the ways of white folk."
Of the fourteen stories, "Father and Son," "Cora Unashamed," and "The Blues I'm Playing" emerge as those with the most sustained treatment of black female characters. "Cora Unashamed" and "Father and Son" appropriately begin and end the collection. Despite the fact that Hughes titles the collection The Ways of White Folks, he begins and ends the book with black women characters who are strikingly different from each other and who serve as points of reference for the female characters in the other stories. Except for Oceola in "The Blues I'm Playing," all the other black women characters lack the dignity and wisdom of Cora in "Cora Unashamed" and struggle to overcome Cora's poverty as well as Coralee Lewis's entrapment in "Father and Son."
While Cora of "Cora Unashamed," the protagonist of the first story, is self-assured, courageous, loving, and wise, Coralee Lewis, the mother figure in "Father and Son," is disappointingly weak, and her failure to censure her white lover/master before his death results in his death as well as the death of her two sons. Though Cora represents a traditional depiction of the black woman, Coralee emerges as a rather strikingly nontraditional, equally as convincing portrait of the black woman before and after slavery. During slavery, Coralee is just a young girl on the then young Colonel Norwood's plantation. He marries a young woman from whom he becomes isolated, and the slaves begin to gossip because Norwood and his young wife fail to have children. Norwood, like John Dutton in Margaret Walker's Jubilee, goes to the slave quarters to have his sexual desires fulfilled by Livonia, who also has four black lovers because she loves to love. Coralee's reaction to talk of Livonia's affair with Norwood clearly suggests that some black women during slavery welcomed a sexual union with their masters: "Cora heard all this and in her mind a certain envy sprang up. Livonia! Huh! Cora began to look more carefully in the cracked mirror in her mother's cabin. She combed her hair and oiled it better than before. She was seventeen then." When Cora took milk to the Big House after this, "she tried to look her best." Later during a party at the Big House, Coralee takes a walk out in the woods near the house. Young Norwood, who is restless, takes a walk and ends up near Coralee, sitting under a huge oak tree. Norwood approaches her, asks who she is, takes her face in his hands, and has sex with her.
It is not appropriate to say that he seduces her. For Coralee clearly desired Norwood long before he knew of her existence. When Coralee is pregnant with her first child, she tells her mother of her situation. Her mother's response suggests the black woman's dilemma before and after slavery. Coralee's mother says, "It's better'n slavin' in the cotton fields... I's known colored women what's wore silk dresses and lived like queens on plantations right here in Georgy... " Although Coralee's actions and her mother's attitude are not characteristic of all African American women during and after slavery, they do suggest the attitude and behavior of some black women, those women who fell prey to the conditions of their environment.
Hughes, however, goes further than to demonstrate that all slave women were not repulsed by the sexual advances of their masters. He also shows the price they and their offspring paid for this sexual union. After Bert, one of Coralee and the Colonel's four children, shoots the Colonel, he then shoots himself in order not to be lynched by the mob that pursues him. As a result of all the trauma, Coralee retreats inside herself and goes mad. The lynch mob not only lynches Bert, but his brother Willie, too. Willie had always acted humbly in order not to antagonize whites. Set during early Reconstruction, "Father and Son" dramatizes the complexity of the black woman's history. For as a young slave woman, Coralee has no dreams of a life outside the plantation. A sexual liaison with the slave master opens up opportunities that allow for a specious level of comfort. Thus, after slavery Coralee is able to convince Norwood to send her four children away to school, yet she and those of her children who returned to the plantation never moved beyond the status of slaves in Colonel Norwood's perception and treatment of them. Coralee completely acquiesces to his racism and attempts to instill her fears and cowardice into her offspring.
Even though Colonel Norwood and his son Bert are the two main characters as suggested by the title of the short story, Coralee's situation helps us appreciate the depth of the Colonel's racism and the inexorable cultural taboos that prevent him from marrying her and accepting her offspring as his own.
Quite unlike Coralee, Cora, the central character of "Cora Unashamed," challenges white society in very different ways. Despite the fact that Cora's financial situation and her home environment are as wretched as Coralee's, on some level Cora realizes that she can make choices about how she lives her life. Cora's brothers have deserted the family leaving Cora to take care of an ailing mother and an alcoholic father.
Hughes dramatizes Cora's self-assurance and her courage by contrasting her with the wealthy Studevant women for whom she works as a domestic in a small, rural town in Iowa, 150 miles from Sioux City. While the Studevant women are hypocritical, elitist, and insensitive, Cora is humble, strong, and generous, particularly with her sincere love for people. Cora and Mrs. Studevant give birth, around the same time, to daughters, both of whom Cora nurses. After Cora's baby dies, she devotes all of her attention and love to Jessie, the Studevant child, who is seriously neglected by her mother and the rest of her family. When Jessie becomes pregnant, she seeks comfort in Cora, who tells Mrs. Studevant of her daughter's pregnancy. Mrs. Studevant first faints and later collects herself enough to tell the town that she and Jessie are going on a shopping trip to Kansas City, where they actually go for an abortion.
Jessie returns from the trip a different person. And her death is due more to a broken heart over the loss of her child than from any surgical complications. Hughes uses natural imagery to suggest Jessie's and Cora's wholesomeness as opposed to the narrow-mindedness and unnaturalness of Mrs. Studevant, her mother, and her older daughter. When we first meet Cora, the narrator explains that she was "like a tree -- once rooted, she stood, in spite of storms and strife, wind, and rocks in the earth." And when there is a discussion about Jessie's going away to normal school after high school, the tree again represents Cora's stability, strength, and her natural ability to love: "Cora hated to think about her going away. In her heart she had adopted Jessie. In the big and careless household it was always Cora who stood like a calm and sheltering tree for Jessie to run to in her troubles." Natural imagery also suggests the difference between Jessie's and Cora's wholesome attitude toward lovemaking and pregnancy and the Studevants' attitude. The narrator describes Cora's thoughts as she thinks of Jessie: "Then Spring came in full bloom, and the fields and orchards at the edge of Melton stretched green and beautiful to the far horizon. Cora remembered her own Spring, twenty years ago, and a great sympathy and pain welled up in her heart for Jessie, who was the same age that Josephine would have been, had she lived."
A moving portrayal of the interrelationship between race, culture, and gender, "Cora Unashamed" dramatizes how the Studevant women's elitism and insensitivity cause them to ignore Jessie's needs and motivate their attempt to instill their cultural values in Jessie. And just as it is forbidden for a young, unmarried woman of their class and race to become pregnant outside of wedlock, it is equally forbidden for the Studevants, like Colonel Norwood, to consider Cora, a black woman, a human being even though she nurses their child and is responsible for the full care of their home.
The Studevants are not as wealthy as the Mrs. Dora Ellsworth of "The Blues I'm Playing." When Mrs. Ellsworth discovers Oceola Jones, a young black woman [pianist], she is enthralled with Oceola's blackness as much as she is with Oceola's musical skill. Mrs. Ellsworth appoints herself as Oceola's patron and attempts to control Oceola's life. When she learns that Oceola does not charge rent to her lover/boarder, Mrs. Ellsworth assumes that Pete Williams, a Pullman porter, saving money for medical school, is exploiting Oceola. Having always had the many comforts that money can buy, Mrs. Ellsworth denies herself an emotional life and is thus incapable of understanding or appreciating Oceola's relationship with Pete. Mrs. Ellsworth is a voyeur who lives vicariously through the lives of those she patronizes, though she needs to control them in order to do so. Because she is racist and elitist, she attempts to lure Oceola away from Pete by taking her to Paris and convincing her to move away from Harlem, where she frequently plays for churches and at parties.
Mrs. Ellsworth, however, is unsuccessful in destroying or even penetrating the core of Oceola's love for herself, for Pete, for black people, and for black culture. Oceola informs Mrs. Ellsworth that she and Pete are going to get married and invites Mrs. Ellsworth to the wedding. But Mrs. Ellsworth informs that, although she will be unable to attend, she will send a nice gift. It seems that she must go to Florence to meet her new young protégé, "a charming white-haired boy from Omaha whose soul has been crushed in the West." But Mrs. Ellsworth believes herself to be superior to Oceola and the latest protégé. Rather than seeing them as human beings, she unknowingly treats them as objects to comfort her loneliness. Yet, Oceola, like Cora in "Cora Unashamed," is not ashamed of her emotional life or her culture. She uses her music to celebrate life rather than to avoid it.
In "The Blues I'm Playing," Langston Hughes displays his deep knowledge of music and the arts in both the African American and Euro-American traditions. But his love of black music, well illustrated at the end of "The Blues I'm Playing," suggests that Hughes is not just writing short stories so that white people can read about themselves; he also writes to pay tribute to the lives of the many "ladies' maids and truck drivers, laundry workers and shoe shine boys, seamstresses and porters" that he met at rent parties in Harlem and on Seventh Street in Washington, D.C. Oceola's playing a blues song at the end of the novel and Mrs. Ellsworth's preference to stand and look at the stars rather than sing of love nicely contrasts Hughes's idea of art with the Euro-centric notion of "art for art's sake." His portraits of black women like Cora, Coralee, and Oceola underscore the reason why Hughes is one of the few black writers read continuously by a large number of blacks in the underclass. They recognize that he is writing to them as much as about them. And the attention he gives to black women in The Ways of White Folks reveals Hughes's understanding that the African American woman is the chord that unites the historical triad of race, culture, and gender.
"Culture." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.
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