The Reconciliation of Opposites
We should not forget that Not Without Laughter is, above all things, a bildungsroman (Schultz, p.44), and Hughes presents its protagonist, Sandy, growing up and developing, and slowly beginning to make sense of American society, of himself and of what he wants to do in life. As Sandy matures he is faced with various choices about how to live his life, and he becomes acutely aware of certain oppositions in the novel. Furthermore, Hughes himself presents further oppositions almost all of which stem from the racist society in which Sandy lives or, if they occur within the African American community itself, have their roots in the legacy of slavery. Schultz (p.44) even argues that there is an opposition between the genre of the bildungsroman - in which the youthful hero comes to maturity – and Not Without Laughter in which our expectations of the bildungsroman are limited by Sandy’s context as an African American growing up in the first two decades of the twentieth century in a racist and segregated society. Nonetheless, despite all the oppositions, Hughes ends the novel on a triumphant note in which, according to Tracy, “Sandy synthesizes the diverse strains of his folk roots” (p. 3) and Sandy manages to accept at least some of the oppositions presented in the novel.
First published in 1930 and set in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Not Without Laughter presents the most important opposition in the novel as that between the African American community and the dominant white society that surrounds them. From this opposition, it could be argued, all the others follow. Harriet’s assertion that “white folks run the world” (Hughes, p. 53) comes after she has been asked to move to the back of the theater when her class goes to see a film together; Jimboy has lost a brick laying job because of his color; Anjee says, “Evening’s the only time we niggers have to ourselves. ’Cause all the day you gives to white folks” (Hughes, p. 46); Sandy is moved to the back of the class in Chapter XI; Mrs. Johnson says, “White folks is white folks, an’ dey’s mean” (Hughes, p. 50); the Free Children’s Day Party that Sandy has collected all the coupons for, turns out to be for white children only. This opposition of races is central to the novel and even produces oppositions within the family: Aunt Hager is always forgiving of white folks, but Harriet rebels, quits her job because it is so demeaning and poorly paid, and drops out of high school, saying to her mother, “ain’t no use in learnin’ books fo nothin’ but to work in white folks kitchens” when she has graduated (Hughes, p. 17). Everything that Sandy sees and hears influences him: when he overhears Mrs. Rice, his mother’s white employer, reprimanding his mother, he cries; after the disappointment of the Free Children’s Day Party, he has the insight to say to his grandmother, “I guess Kansas is getting like the South, isn’t it?” (Hughes, p. 142). This insight shows his intelligent awareness of the society he is living in.
A central opposition stemming from living in a racist society is the opposition between poverty and material wealth. Schultz puts forward the idea that there is an opposition between nature and civilization in as much as “Hager’s house is open to the elements” (p. 41): it is true that many activities take place outdoors, but this opposition is really that between poverty and wealth. Aunt Hager’s household’s closeness to nature, while celebrated and a source of pleasure in summer, reveals its poverty in winter: Anjee’s long illness is caused by her long walks to and from Mrs. Rice’s house where she works, and her exposure to the cold and wet winter weather. Sandy notices “the windows of white folks’ houses where the curtains were up and warm floods of electric light made bright the cosy rooms” (Hughes, p. 108), as he heads homewards to his grandmother’s cold house. Sandy’s observations undoubtedly inspire his ambition to get an education.
Another opposition that is important in the novel is that between men and women. Because his father, Jimboy, is absent for most of the novel, Sandy is brought up largely by the women of his family, and, as he grows up, he hears through the gossip of his grandmother and her neighbors many stories of male mistreatment of women. Jimboy’s casual attitude to work is not an integral part of his character at all: Hughes makes it clear that getting work in Stanton is difficult if you are African American because only the worst jobs are open to you at very low wages. Sandy himself realizes that “to get a good job you had to be smart – and white, too. That was the trouble, you had to be white” (Hughes, p. 187). Jimboy’s frequent abandonment of his wife is also a pattern of behaviour which can be traced back to the days of slavery when male slaves were often separated from their children and the mothers of their children. Jimboy is behaving in a manner ‘taught’ to him by the experience of many generations of his ancestors who were slaves. Even Tempy’s husband, a model of African American middle class behaviour, is often absent from home because of the demands of his job on the railroad. However, Jimboy does not treat Anjee violently as some husbands do: Mrs. Johnson says, “I’s knowed many a man to beat his wife” (Hughes, p. 97), showing that in the society of the novel women are still treated as possessions by some men.
Hughes’s presentation of location and place gives rise to important oppositions which are based on race and the different expectations of different places in the minds of the African American characters. Kansas, where Sandy grows up, is presented in opposition to the South – where racism and prejudice are even worse - so bad, in fact, that Mrs. Johnson, Aunt Hager’s neighbour, has fled the South after the African American part of town was burnt to the ground by the white residents after a shooting incident in which an African American shot a white man who objected to his owning an automobile. As the novel progresses, Stanton is presented in opposition to the northern cities like Detroit and Chicago – which seem to offer regular employment and stability. However, this is an illusion: there is regular work, but Jimboy and Anjee still live in poverty and struggle to survive in the north. Even within the town of Stanton oppositions exist: Sandy’s neighbourhood is in opposition to the Bottoms – the wrong side of the tracks, where Harriet lives after her return from Memphis; but Sandy’s neighborhood is also seen in opposition to the more prosperous part of town where the middle classes live and where African American woman go to work in lowly, poorly paid jobs. Even the other side of Sandy’s street is in opposition to his own: there the houses have electricity and Christmas decorations, Sandy notices. Sandy also notices that “in the Bottoms folks ceased to struggle against the boundaries between good and bad, or white and black (Hughes, p. 158) and later that the Bottoms was “the only section of Stanton where Negroes and whites mingled freely on equal terms” (Hughes, 170). This is an important perception in Sandy’s development.
One very explicit opposition, which Sandy is exposed to, is that between the ideas of Booker T. Washington and those of W. E. B. Dubois. Washington is Aunt Hager’s hero and she often mentions him to Sandy as a man who has done great things for the African American race. She says to Mrs. Johnson about Sandy, “He’s gwine be another Booker T. Washington” (Hughes, p. 98). It is only after his grandmother’s death when he is taken in his Aunt Tempy that he hears Tempy’s dismissal of Washington – “Teaching Negroes to be servants, that’s all Washington did!” - and her assertion that Dubois is a great man who “wants our rights. He wants us to be real men and women” (Hughes, p. 176. Tempy may be pretentious and a slavish emulator of white people, but she shows kindness and generosity when she takes Sandy in and she also introduces him to the ideas of Dubois. Sandy’s way of dealing with this competing opposition of African American men of ideas is to conclude, as he is to do with so many of the oppositions, “I guess they were both great men” (Hughes, p. 178). Sandy’s ability to see both points of view will be important in his development.
There is certainly an opposition between the past (as represented by Aunt Hager and her generation) and the present, between the older African Americans and the young. This gives rise to oppositions within the family and its different generations. Aunt Hager does not approve of the life-styles chosen by any of her three daughters. Tempy is hardly ever seen by the reader until Aunt Hager’s illness and death, and seems embarrassed by the other members of her family; she and her husband are part of the new African American middle class who are desperate to distance themselves from their roots and prove to white people that they can be respectable and financially secure; they even attend the Episcopalian Church and buy what they need from the best shops in town. When she visits them at Christmas, we are told “when she had gone, everybody felt relieved – as though a white person had left the house” (Hughes, p. 107). Anjee, in Aunt Hager’s view, has made a bad choice of husband in Jimboy, whose feckless attitude to work and routine leads in the early part of the novel to his frequent absences from home. As far as Aunt Hager is concerned, Anjee has foolishly married for love, and Anjee abandons Sandy to join Jimboy in the north, leaving him to be brought up by his grandmother. Harriet, the youngest daughter, is the one Aunt Hager disapproves of most: she leaves home to join the carnival, ends up living in the Bottoms, is arrested for prostitution and, by the end of the novel, is a successful blues singer. However, it is interesting to note that on her death bed Harriet is the only daughter that Aunt Hager asks for, and it is to Harriet that Aunt Hager gives her most prized possession – a watch that Harriet pawned when she joined the carnival and which Aunt Hager got back for sentimental reasons. O’Donnell, Nieland and Ball assert that the three daughters “represent the three possibilities for racial accommodation in modern America: slavish emulation, uncomplaining acceptance and proud independence” (p. 632). Tempy slavishly emulates white folks, and Anjee struggles through life with uncomplaining acceptance, while Henrietta opts for proud independence.
Hughes makes explicit the opposition of the sacred and the secular, between Aunt Hager’s old-fashioned Baptist faith and its music, and the secular life-style favoured by Jimboy and Harriet, and their secular, sexually charged music, between the revival meeting and the carnival. Aunt Hager calls Jimboy, “The devil’s musicianer straight from hell” (Hughes, p. 23), while Harriet says to her mother, “Your old Jesus is white! He’s white and stiff and don’t like niggers” (Hughes, p. 28). Tracy writes of the novel’s concern with “the dichotomy between the sacred and the secular” (p. 2) and also comments that “some people in the community had difficulty negotiating what they saw as the oppositions between the two musics” (p. 1). Aunt Hager and Harriet have no difficulty “negotiating” the oppositions – they each believe that their own music is best. It is Sandy who has to reconcile the fact that he enjoys both musical traditions and by the end of the novel he has, as Tracy puts it, synthesized “the diverse strains of his folk roots” (p.1). He has recognized the value in both types of music.
Through all these oppositions Hughes portrays the difficulties facing African Americans in the post-slavery era. The difficulties faced by
African Americans come down to something very simple: how to live your life and be happy and successful, in a society that is prejudiced and where you are treated unfairly because of your skin color. Hughes also conveys the divisions and uncertainties within the African American community itself. Aunt Hager’s three daughters present three different ways of living and Sandy, as the hero of this bildungsroman, has essentially to choose between three very different life-styles. Sandy’s dilemma is that he is intelligent and ambitious: he wonders at one point in the novel whether he would “ever have a big house with electricity, like his Aunt Tempy did” (Hughes, p. 122). Therefore, the differing ideas of Booker T. Washington and Dubois are relevant. In a way, simply through the act of writing and publishing Not Without Laughter, Hughes is showing his own support for Dubois’s ideas about the advancement of African Americans: by becoming a creative artist, he is rejecting the utilitarian approach favoured by Washington and striving to create an African American culture which Dubois argued had the potential to be as rich as white culture.
Hughes emphasizes the dilemmas through the genre of the bildungsroman. Sandy is faced with choices or options as he grows up, which encapsulate and make real the oppositions that surround him. For example, his desire for a Golden Flyer sled for Christmas coincides with a winter of illness and extreme poverty for Anjee and Aunt Hager, so he only gets a home-made sled; this is not his choice, but it leads him to realize that Santa Claus is not real, and his grandmother and his mother are very poor, because they are African American. Later, when he is working at the Drummer’s Hotel and doing shoe shines as an extra, he makes a choice for himself: he is being goaded into dancing by a drunken white man from the South and chooses not to accept the racist treatment he receives, throwing his boot-black box at the crowd of drunken white men and running out, effectively quitting his job – his only source of income. At the end of the novel, Sandy chooses to continue his education in high school, despite Anjee’s urging him to remain working as an elevator boy; in choosing education and self-advancement he recalls his grandmother’s hopes for him and is supported financially by his Aunt Harriet.
The end of the novel is a celebration of Sandy’s coming of age and his continued attendance at high school, but it is much more than that. Although Harriet seems to be the worst of Aunt Hager’s daughters (as a prostitute and blues singer), at the end of the novel she reminds Anjee of their mother’s wish that Sandy should have a good education and offers to pay for it herself. According to Tracy, although Harriet has rejected the formal religiosity of her mother she “retains elements of the Baptist forgiveness, thoughtfulness, and compassion she saw in Aunt Hager” (p. 4). The real reason for the end of the novel being so triumphant is that Sandy’s coming of age, as presented by Hughes, enables him “to reconcile the different ideas and natures of those around him without being harshly judgmental or hateful, and without segregating elements of the community from each other” (Tracy, p. 6). In the penultimate chapter, Sandy blends the memories of his grandmother dancing “whirling around in front of the altar at revival meetings” with memories of Harriet “eagle-rocking in the summer evenings” and imagines himself carrying on these different traditions by “dancing far beyond the limitations of [his] poverty” (Hughes, p. 210).
Hughes, Langston. Not Without Laughter. 2008. New York: Dover. Print.
O’Donnell, Patrick, Nieland, Justus & Ball. The Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Fiction. 2010. New York: Wiley Blackwell. Print.
Schultz, Elizabeth. “Natural and Unnatural Consequences in Not Without Laughter”. Pages 39 – 54 in Tidswell, John Edgar, Rampersand, Arnold & Ragar, Cheryl, R. Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes. 2007. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press. Print.
Tracy, Steven C. “Langston Hughes and Aunt Hager’s Children’s Blues Performances”. Pages 19 – 31 in Tidswell, John Edgar, Rampersand, Arnold & Ragar, Cheryl, R. Montage of a Dream: The Art and Life of Langston Hughes. 2007. Colombia, MO: University of Missouri Press. Print.