The Ways of White Folks
A Stylistic Analysis of Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes is a classic American author whose writing style is, perhaps, one of the most malleable styles in the history of American literature. In the first place, he is among the exclusive echelon of writers to oscillate back and forth in his works between poetry and prose, being so well accomplished in both forms. Beyond this, though, he alters his style in either arena rather often in order to make a formal point; that is, the form and style of his writing is usually different from piece to piece because his writing style is always a tool used to create a motif that communicates substance critical to the work’s purpose. Two stories from The Ways of White Folks more than adequately exemplify just how much his writing style can morph from work to work, and they also highlight how Hughes uses these stylistic changes.
Langston Hughes writes “Red-Headed Baby” about a white seaman named Clarence who sails into the port of a Black town in the south and looks up a Black girl named Betsy with whom he once had sex. He has every intention of having sex with her again, but he discovers a two-year-old at the girl’s house that has the same red hair he has. He finds himself unable to handle the realization that he has a colored son, so rather than have sex with Betsy as he initially planned, he leaves hurriedly.
The narrative style is of a very poetic prose, and it is important to note that it is written differently from much of Hughes’s narration. It is rife with incomplete sentences that convey complete thoughts, and the reader is deliberately led to realize that the narration is, more or less, representative of Clarence’s train of thought. As the protagonist of the story, Clarence shapes the primary point of view in the text, narrating with his thoughts and even presumably talking aloud to himself, vocalizing some of these thoughts. This causes his narrative voice to bleed into his dialogue.
The significance of this narrative style is that Hughes uses the punctuation of these complete thoughts to show the reader Clarence’s varying levels of anxiety. The more anxious he gets, the more these thoughts begin to run together. The narrative structure resorts to a series of run-on sentences, for example, when he discovers the child and recognizes it as unmistakably his. The narration also gets more poetic as certain allusions Clarence makes in his mind become like refrains because they show up more than once (e.g. “goggly-eyed dolls you hit with a ball at the County Fair” or “three shots for a quarter like a loaded doll”).
Throughout the story, Clarence’s perspective typifies Blacks as subhuman and lowly. He uses what he sees on a person’s outward appearance as a measure for that person’s worth. The visual perception of color in a person’s skin devalues them from Clarence’s perspective, so it is situationally ironic that the boy, also named Clarence, would be described by his great aunt as blind—not because he cannot see but because he does not place any importance on what he sees at all. Clarence also dominates the text with his own perspective by narrating so thoroughly. His voice dominates not only the narration but also the dialogue, and the majority of the text is in his voice; the few words that Betsy and the Old Woman speak are filtered through Clarence’s narrative voice inasmuch as Hughes never introduces quotes with “Betsy said” or “the Old Woman replied,” which means he shapes the narrative completely. He establishes the value system for human worth. This makes it equally ironic that his namesake never speaks and is described as deaf. Hughes seems to suggest that all the senses Clarence abuses are absent in his son.
Hughes presents the implicit binary of black/white, but he also presents an explicit opposition of red/yellow. Betsy is an interracial child herself, mixed with Black and White, but the reader only knows that the colored part of her is Black because Clarence refers to Betsy, her aunt, and everyone in the town as “niggers.” In other words, the term, Black, is never actually used; rather, she is constantly referred to as “yellow.” The pejorative slur, nigger, is derived from the word, negro, which means black specifically, so in a literal sense, it is contradictory that Betsy be called a nigger and yellow, as opposed to black, which evinces the inequity of Whites’ rules on race. The system they established essentially referred to a person as Black for having any noticeable trace of Black in them even if they were more White than Black, as if to suggest the White ethnicity had been tainted and could no longer be called White. This is the racist logic behind terms like mulatto, quadroon, and octoroon.
In “A Good Job Gone,” Hughes writes from the perspective of a young, African American boy who works as a servant for a wealthy, White man named Mr. Lloyd. The young boy narrates the story, telling his experience to some other boy. He explains that this was the best paying job he’d ever had. Mr. Lloyd paid him twenty dollars a week and would often slip him fives for miscellaneous tasks or when he was leaving for several days, and more significantly, Mr. Lloyd had no qualms with Blacks, which made him treat the narrator well.
The ultimate commentary on Whites stems from how much of a rarity Mr. Lloyd is. He is a peculiar White man in that his wife is paralyzed, so he cannot have sex with her. He is also a depressed man who treats his depression with drinking and womanizing. Even more than the depression, though, it is pregnant with meaning that Mr. Lloyd loses his sanity after the heartbreak he experiences with what the narrator calls a jane from Harlem named Pauline, which suggests that he had been on the edge of sanity all along. The implication becomes that only an insane, White man could be so comfortable with Blacks, and after reading of his loss of sanity, the reader is led to retrospectively question the narrator’s comments about Mr. Lloyd’s fair treatment of him as no longer being evidence of him being a good man but, rather, a man so desperate for companionship that he couldn’t afford to cut Blacks out.
Perhaps the most interesting binary opposition in the text is that of Riverside Drive/Harlem. The story establishes these two places as antitheses of one another, and this opposition of settings facilitates the story entirely. The majority of the story occurs in Riverside Drive where Mr. Lloyd lives since the narrator is almost always there maintaining Mr. Lloyd’s house even when Mr. Lloyd is gone, so Riverside Drive is given presence for most of the text while Harlem is given absence with the exception of one scene in which Mr. Lloyd finds Pauline with her colored lover. This adds presence/absence as an associated binary opposition. Additionally, due to Mr. Lloyd’s incessant womanizing, another binary opposition that works in tandem with these is that of man/woman. Finally, there is the obvious binary of White/Black due to the importance of Mr. Lloyd’s peculiar acceptance of Blacks as a White man.
In each of these oppositions, certain terms receive privilege. Riverside Drive is privileged over Harlem, for example, because it is given the most presence and because it is implicitly described as the wealthy side of town, as opposed to Harlem where Blacks live. In general, presence is given privilege instead of absence because the characters that are present are the characters that drive the plot. The narrator is the most present character in the text, and Mr. Lloyd is the second-most present character. They dominate the text, yet Mr. Lloyd’s paralyzed wife is only mentioned from time to time, never seen; this makes her absent, and her absence evinces her powerlessness in the text. She has no power to keep Mr. Lloyd from sleeping with all these other women because she is trapped in White Plains, a different area altogether. Ultimately, the text privileges man over woman also because Mr. Lloyd controls how long the women he sees stay with him and when they leave, which sets up the most significant contradiction to come later. These binary oppositions establish a classist, sexist, racist hierarchy with whiteness, wealth, and masculinity at the top. The contradictions come from Pauline, a Black woman in need of money from Harlem, who claims the power and privilege in the end. Mr. Lloyd falls helplessly in love with her, and she does not reciprocate; rather, she uses him for his money just as every White woman has, and the difference is that she is the first to break up with him. She takes the power from him and upsets the hierarchy, reversing all the oppositions and bestowing privilege upon blackness, poverty (for lack of a better word), and femininity. Even the narrator ultimately loses his good job because of her, which means Pauline’s power affects him as well.
There are also contradictions even among the original, privileged terms. Whereas both whiteness and masculinity are privileged, they conflict with one another in the case of the White women with whom Mr. Lloyd has his affairs because, of course, none of these women have any evidence of power despite being White. Their femininity should not cancel out their whiteness, yet it does; consequently, the text evinces inequity even among the privileges.
In both of these pieces, Hughes uses his writing style to give the narrator’s the most realistic voices he can. He makes the reader feel as though he or she has met these characters in real life. This is what makes his writing style so incredibly malleable. He is able to stylistically transform his writing into whatever is most conducive to an evocative reading experience, and he does this to such an extent that it becomes very difficult to say with any real certainty what Hughes’s tendencies are apropos of formal mechanics like punctuation, diction, or vernacular.
Race, Mobility and Hope
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 PresenceHughes 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 AgencyIn “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..