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Race, Mobility and Hope

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In Langston Hughes’ shorty story collection “Ways of White Folks,” gifted, upwardly mobile African Americans often meet misfortune. On a cursory read, these fatalistic narratives seem to connote a disastrous, helpless fate for African Americans. Despite their oppression, however, his main characters continue to show vibrancy and courage. In this, he simultaneously acknowledges that African Americans can be exceptional, but that, ultimately, their exceptionality cannot save them. His hope lies in the agency and talents of his characters—that despite these conditions, blacks continue to be creative, strong-willed and articulate. Focusing on the stories “Home” and “Father and Son,” this paper will discuss how Hughes uses seemingly fatalistic narratives to not only critique racism, but to give hope within these constraints. It will also briefly contrast Hughes’ views of social mobility with those of Zora Neale Hurston.

“Home” and the Subversive Quality of Presence

Hughes does not procrastinate in portraying the reality of demise when one chooses to be an “uppity nigger,” (a well-dressed, educated or gifted black), coined by the white antagonists in “Home” (36). As the second story, “Home” immediately causes the reader to “critique how mobility is fraught with difficulty for gifted blacks” (class discussion 1/1/07). Roy Williams returns to his home in Hopkinsville, Missouri after playing violin in nightclubs across Europe. This return is incited by an illness which Roy believes will be his death. He is also appalled by the excess of Europe juxtaposed with its devastating poverty. He concludes that conditions are “rotten everywhere,” and wishes to “go home” (35).

After spending years in a more racially tolerant Europe, Roy consistently fails to remember how inappropriate his actions are in America: “Roy had forgotten he wasn’t in Europe, wearing gloves and shaking hands with a white man! Damn!” (36). He is so accustomed to socializing with whites that he cannot immediately assimilate into bigoted Hopkinsville. Many of the white residents made certain he would not forget his social standing in America: “For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his color. He was home” (37). In this text is a definitive critique of America in relation to Europe. Despite Europe’s imperfections, Roy never needed to show superfluous deference to a white or worry about harassment for dressing above his class.

Roy’s mother convinces him to play a show “fo’ de Lawd” in the Hopkinsville church (38).” Although the audience consists of both blacks and whites, the whites sit in the front. As he plays, Roy takes pride in his craft and the example he becomes to his race: “First time they ever had one of their own race coming home from abroad playing a violin. See them looking proud at me and music over the heads of the white folks in the first rows…” (42). This passage expresses the unity Roy feels with his race despite having escaped the necessity of race unity by traveling to Europe. He recalls there is no higher school for blacks in Hopkinsville, and that his only chance for education came in the form of eloping with a minstrel show. The rarity of his situation proves how difficult it is for blacks to procure education. After the show, Roy meets and befriends Miss Reese, a white high school music teacher. Their friendship seems to prove the ability of art to transcend race lines. However, this impression is marred when Roy is accused of rape for having stopped and talked to Miss Reese on the street. His white accusers beat and hang him.

Although Roy’s lifeless, suspended body is likened to “a violin for the wind to play,” this is not a reflection of his passivity in life. The violin simile connotes that Hughes does not view art as a panacea to race problems. Nor do Roy’s agency and ability to make choices save him. But in itself, the fact that he is making choices serves as a larger redemption. One may attribute Roy’s neglect to adjust his attitudes and dress in Missouri to naïveté. Perhaps it is more than naïveté,; perhaps it is Roy’s deliberate obstinacy in the face of racism. He does not live in fear, he walks at night without hesitation, and he ignores the slurs directed at him. For the first time in Hopkinsville, whites and blacks alike see a black man in fine evening dress, playing a violin. Even in his timidity, Roy’s very presence is subversive.

“Father and Son”: Death and Agency

In “Father and Son,” a story of the doomed relations between Bert, a spirited mulatto son, and Tom, his distant white father, Hughes enters the story with a strong authorial presence to convey the “test tube” quality of life. Bert’s strained relations with his father are renewed when he arrives home from school after a six or seven year absence, determined not to bend to a white man: “…after he returned to the Big House Plantation that summer, life was never the same. From Bert’s very first day on the place something was broken, something went dizzy. The world began to spin, to ferment, and move into a new action. Not to be a white folks’ nigger—Bert had come home with that idea in his head” (227-228).

Bert’s catalytic presence creates unrest among the blacks and whites. Hughes compares Bert’s arrival to a potent powder which will cause the “test tube of life,” or the town, to boil. Bert’s brother and diametrical opposite, Willie, chose to stay on the plantation instead of receiving an education: “Willie and the Colonel got along fine, because Willie was docile and good-natured and nigger-like, bowing and scraping and treating white folks like they expected to be treated” (226). Bert’s mother, Cora, admonishes Bert for his haughtiness and laments that he cannot be more “like Willie” (237). Bert shows his own agency by refusing his father’s commands to work on the plantation, but as punishment his father prohibits him from returning to school.

Although Bert is half-white, he is still deprived of education by his father. This punishment also arises out of Tom’s suspicion that Bert is the cause of discontent among the blacks. His proud manner and continuous refusal to bow to the whites creates a mounting tension between father and son. This tension ends in Tom threatening to shoot Bert and Bert strangling Tom to death. Bert then chooses to take his own life rather than death by the hands of a white mob.

Bert is exceptional, and the strength of his action is shown no less by his ability to be the arbiter of his own death. He usurps the pleasure of his death from the mob and retains his dignity through suicide. The mob still lynches him, but the entertainment they can gain from his hanging is “sort of stale in the end” (254). Even in death, Bert renders the whites’ bloodlust impotent. However, because Bert’s death proves anticlimactic for the mob, they also torture and hang Willie. Despite taking every measure not to agitate the whites, therefore, Willie still dies at their hands. This double-death concludes that either way one decides to be black, subservient or strident, both methods will lead to tragedy (class discussion 1/1/07). But Bert’s ultimate subversion comes from his presence and the ideas he implants while still living—his refusal to be a “white folks’ nigger.” As Hughes interjects, “Once the idea comes into your head, you’ll never be the same again” (228).

At one point, Bert is referred to disdainfully as “An educated nigger…” This echoes the accusations of the verbal assault of “uppty nigger” in “Home.” Roy’s deviance is more subtle than Bert’s, but both use their education and talent to convey to their people a life beyond subservience to whites. Although both lives conclude in demise, Hughes does not intend to leave the reader discouraged. By combining the presence of gifted blacks with tragedy, Hughes successfully highlights all-encompassing social flaws, evokes empathy, and shows those who will not be spiritually inhibited by these flaws.

Hughes and Hurston: Individualism vs. the Social Problem

Langston Hughes’ unity and celebration of the blacks as a “people” was not the all-encompassing sentiment of his contemporaries. His collective call to action was countered by the individualistic “bootstraps” methodology of Zora Neale Hurston. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston discusses her racial epiphany:

“Light came to me when I realized that I did not have to consider any racial group as a whole…I learned that skins were no measure of what was inside people. So none of the race clichés meant anything any more. I began to laugh at both white and black who claimed special blessings on the basis of race. Therefore I saw no curse in being black, nor no extra flavor by being white” (Hurston 235).

Dust Tracks was written in Hurston’s time of success, when, through white patronage, she was afforded life essentials, fine clothes and education. Therefore, it was not beneficial for her to fault whites in the black struggle for social mobility. In Hughes’ realm, to claim there is “no extra flavor by being white” is to completely ignore the social problem of bigotry.

Once Hurston’s white patronage disappeared, she descended back into the devastating economic conditions which are inevitable to many blacks. Working as a maid, she died poor in a welfare home (class discussion 1/15/07). In many ways, Hurston could easily be a character in one of Hughes’ stories. His narratives counter Hurston’s strong individualism in that they acknowledge the problem of race and the inevitability of class distinctions. Yet both Roy and Bert’s destabilizing presences influenced their people with an inclination to undermine white dominance. Thus, despite the seeming pessimism of Hughes’ message, he points, too, toward racial unity.

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