Critical Review of Langston Hughes
James Mercer Langston Hughes was a Harlem Renaissance leader who is revered to this day as a columnist, playwright, activist, novelist, and poet of incredible contributions to American literature, and he is now considered one of the foremost commenters on the Harlem Renaissance and a pioneer of Jazz poetry. In his autobiography, Hughes famously wrote about the Harlem Renaissance that “Negro was in vogue,” which coined a cliché when David Levering Lewis’s paraphrase of the quote was used as a title for his 1981 book, When Harlem Was in Vogue (Francis 28). Hughes’s writings have experienced the same treatment and retroactive perception that he claimed the Harlem Renaissance experienced in real-time because people often only think about “vogue” pieces of his like specifically “Mother to Son.” This discussion seeks to broaden the perception of Hughes by comparing “Mother to Son” to the vast range of writing styles that four of Hughes’s short stories use to make different commentaries with different tones, and this is intended to put the “vogue” poem in a context that makes it relative to the many other modes he wrote in. This paper will review “Mother to Son” and four short stories to illustrate the range of Hughes’ writing—from straightforward, reliable narration to complex, unreliable narration. This range suggests that Hughes’ writing is suitable for college level study.
Nifong argues that the most effective way to determine how effective the use of point of view is would be to study the different narrative styles of several separate works and deciding whether or not the author(s) succeed(s) in reaching the desired audience. “In The Ways of White Folks one discovers that Langston Hughes experiments with seven points of view and meets with varying degrees of success” (Nifong 94). It is a testament to Hughes’ writing ability that he published a collection of short stories on his own that collectively makes a wide range of narrative styles, and The Ways of White Folks is one such collection. This discussion includes five short stories from this collection for that reason.
“Mother to Son” is a poem selected for this discussion specifically because of its popularity. It is quoted often, posted on numerous websites, and recited by Tony and SAG (Screen Actors Guild)-Award winning actress Viola Davis. The second and last lines of the poem are the same, and they are so well known that they are often mistaken for the title of the poem in a way similar to how Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” might be mistakenly but frequently called “The Road Less Traveled,” and these lines say, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes 2, 20). These are some of the things about the poem that can qualify it as Hughes’s archetypal work in comparison to the rest of his writings, but it is important to recognize that Hughes was a very prolific writer and, therefore, had a lot of other works that expressed his thoughts in completely different styles and from vastly different perspectives.
The title, “Mother to Son,” shows a self-explanatory perspective for the speaker. The argument can be made that readers gravitate to this piece because it is a very relatable poem regardless of ethnicity. The lines quoted earlier reference, in the context of the rest of the content, an observation of classism because the fact that the mother has to tell her son that her life has not been a crystal stair suggests that this “crystal stair” really is some people’s experience. She explains her experience and says, “It’s had tacks in it, / And splinters / And boards torn up / And places with no carpet on the floor — / Bare” (Hughes 3-7). This not only paints a literal picture of poverty but also paints a figurative picture of the bad aspects of capitalism because her contrast between the different types of stairs suggests one is for those with power while the other is for those without, explaining why she speaks from a place of struggle.
The Mother basically encourages the Son saying, “So boy, don’t you turn back / Don’t you set down on the steps, / ‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard / […] For I’s still goin’, honey, / I’se still climbin’, / And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (Hughes 14-16, 18-20). These are words meant to encourage the Son, but that confirms for the reader that the Mother is definitely saying it is a bad or lesser experience, figuratively speaking, to walk stairs that are ugly or rough, and it suggests that those who have power have pretty stairs. Marxist criticism refers to this as sign value because it is not that the look of the stairs makes them any easier to climb, yet the appearance of the stairs is assumed, at least by the characters, to be an indication of power. That means that Mother’s and Son’s stairs indicate weakness, which is what makes encouragement necessary. In fact, the sign value seen in the absent stairs of the poem also appeals to readers on the basis that an audience of Hughes’s peers would relate to the sense of consumerism without even thinking about it, focusing more consciously on the idea of having an uglier life (lacking sign value) that was difficult for any variety of reasons. The ambiguity of the Mother’s issues and the Black dialect make it that much more relatable.
As easy as readers find it to gravitate to “Mother to Son,” which is its own testament to Hughes’s ability as a writer, it is most definitely one of his more straightforward and more ambiguous works. He diverged from this simple style in other works such as the short story, “Passing.” This story is written as a letter from a son to a mother ironically, and the son talks about certain aspects of his life, which is the unique life of a Black man passing for White. Like “Mother to Son,” it is written in first person, so the reader is placed in the mind of the son, Jack, who is passing for White and, as a result, has an uncommon perspective on race that Blacks who cannot pass might be bothered by. This story is designed to make the reader uncomfortable by portraying an uncommon perspective that far fewer people relate to and getting inside a mind whose ideas about life and society are likely to be much different from the ideas of the intended audience of “Mother to Son.”
Jack says many things in “Passing” that suggest he is aware of racial injustice yet not that empathetic to the issues because he does not seem to realize the severity of it all. As a result, his perspective comes off as a narcissistic and almost childish one despite his being an adult. He begins, “I felt like a dog, passing you downtown last night and not speaking to you. You were great, though. Didn’t give a sign that you even knew me, let alone I was your son” (Hughes location 529). The implication starts out sounding like Jack feels genuine regret for the social standing he has chosen for himself, but it ends with him quickly commending her for how well she acts like she does not know him. It is worthy of commending because it had to be very difficult for her to ignore him the way she did. If the reader takes the time to come out of Jack’s perspective and get into his mother’s perspective, one can only assume it would be hard for a mother to have to refrain from acknowledging her son in public, but she does this for his sake because it is a sacrifice she is willing to make for a son who has an opportunity at having a privileged life.
The way Jack phrases his sentences says as much as the sentences themselves, which is a stylistic element of “Passing” not as prevalent in “Mother to Son.” He says, “But I don’t mind being ‘White’, Ma, and it was mighty generous of you to urge me to go ahead and make use of my light skin and good hair” (Hughes location 536). He says this as though it would have been justifiably selfish of his mother to just expect him to identify as Black if he did not have to, which means it is a given that being Black is a bad way to live. He is quick to make light of problematic issues and return to his perspective after only the briefest consideration for others’ perspective. To say he does not mind being privileged is to describe an advantage as if it was a disadvantage that he should be commended for accepting. One of the differences between “Mother to Son” and this short story is the introduction of irony which complicates what the son Jack is saying. There is no irony in “Mother to Son,” but here, the reader must realize that Hughes is asking him/her to evaluate Jack’s behavior and words rather than simply accept him.
One instance where Jack demonstrates racial prejudice as a problem at all is when he says, “Since I’ve begun to pass for white, nobody has ever doubted that I am a white man. Where I work, the boss is a Southerner and is always cussing out Negroes in my presence, not dreaming that I’m one. It is to laugh!” (Hughes location 536). Laughter is an inappropriate response for someone empathetic to the marginalized experience. He continues, “Funny thing, though, Ma, how some white people certainly don’t like colored people, do they?” (Hughes location 536). He makes it sound like an original idea, belittling the obvious like it could have been missed. Again, Hughes’s use of irony makes the reader even more aware of the irrationality of prejudice.
The contrast between “Mother to Son” and “Passing” is a stark one, but this is the result of the two works having very different objectives, not due to one being better than the other. In the former, the relatable speaker is part of the point whereas, in the latter, the narrator is unreliable and transparent. The Mother in “Mother to Son” gives an encouraging word in a simplistically eloquent way, but there is arguably more depth in bringing the reader into the mindset of someone likely to peeve Hughes’s audience, which is not just Blacks. Whites are intended to read this and many others of Hughes’s works and gain perspective on the Black experience, and one uncomfortable aspect of the Black experience unfortunately is that of Blacks who pass for White as well as how other Blacks feel about the notion of passing at all. It is a nuanced story dealing with a relatively more obscure and complex racial identity problem.
As different as “Mother to Son” and “Passing” seem, though, they still only represent, even in tandem, a relatively small part of Hughes’s range as a writer, and one other work can greatly expand that range in the reader’s perception. “Red-Headed Baby” is a short story with a bizarrely different narrative style from any of Hughes’s other works. The protagonist is a White sailor with red hair named Clarence whose boat docks at the port of a Black town in the vague south in an area that might remind the reader of Louisiana. He looks up a girl who he had sex with the last time he visited this time, and he intends to have sex with her again. What scares him and ruins his plans is that he finds out she has a two-year-old who has red hair like Clarence.
The narration of “Red-Headed Baby” is extremely different from Hughes’s narrative styles in other works because it is full of incomplete sentences that express complete thoughts. This broken speech in the narration is such a divergence from Hughes’s other writings that a reader might even think it was a sort of prose poem at first. Given that this story is told in first person also, style is basically a representation of Clarence’s stream of consciousness, and stream-of-consciousness writing, no matter what narrative style is used, is a legitimate challenge for any writer. This is why Hughes chooses to write in first person with broken sentence structure because it is a more authentic way to write stream-of-consciousness works.
The narration guides the reader through a series of isolated ideas that gradually paint a picture and frame a scenario. For instance, one paragraph reads, “Crossing the railroad track at the edge of town. Green lights. Sand in the road, seeping into oxfords and the cuffs of dungarees. Surf sounds, mosquito sounds, nigger cries in the night. No street lights out here.” The speaker is only giving the reader thoughts about what he observes as he goes. At another point when Clarence, the speaker, discovers the mixed, red-headed child who resembles him, it gives him anxiety, which scrambles his thoughts and causes his sentences to be even more pointed. A red-headed baby. Moonlight-gone baby. No kind of yellow-white bow-legged goggled-eyed County Fair baseball baby. Get him the hell out of here pulling at my legs looking like me at me like me at myself like me red-headed as me.
Another formal element of the writing in “Red-Headed Baby” that might be important to note is that Hughes actually punctuates his complete thoughts in a way that gives the reader a window into Clarence’s anxiety. As his anxiety builds, the sentences begin to run together, and he suddenly starts to use run-on sentences frequently. In fact, he used run-on sentences almost exclusively when he began fighting the realization that the red-headed baby is his son, which is the climactic moment in the story where Clarence’s anxiety is at its peak. What also adds to the anxiety in Clarence’s mind is that, not only do the sentences begin to run together as he gets more anxious, but also the dialogue and narration begin to run together so that the reader is forced to pay very close attention to context clues in order to know who is speaking sometimes.
A reader who is familiar with Langston Hughes’s other works is more inclined to recognize that his broken sentence structure in “Red-Headed Baby” is a stylistic preference that he has chosen specifically for this story and that it must have a purpose because he very clearly did not write this way in other texts. That is why it is necessary to discuss other works before discussing “Red-Headed Baby” because it is so well done that it can convince the reader that Hughes’s writing style may actually be confined to Clarence’s jumbled thought process if the reader has not read other works by Hughes. Having read “Mother to Son” first is helpful in that the poem gives an example of what Hughes considers sufficient dialect. It shows how much he is willing to bend the English language to the authentic sound of a character on a normal basis, so it still highlights the dialect found in “Red-Headed Baby” as an extreme. Having read “Passing” before “Red-Headed Baby” as well, the reader is inclined to notice that the latter is not representative of his normal narrative structure even down to formal details like punctuation. “Red-Headed Baby” also uses more elaborate vocabulary than “Passing” and “Mother to Son.”
By now, the three works discussed so far show the variety in Hughes’s writing. He changed his writing style often in order to suit the picture he was attempting to paint at the time, so the fourth work worth discussing at this point is one that can round out his writing style with what could be considered a narrative style closer to his most often used style. In “A Good Job Gone,” Hughes gives readers the perspective of a young, African American male, and the boy serves as a servant in the mansion of a rich, White man named Mr. Lloyd who lives in Riverside Drive. Even though the Black boy is the protagonist of the story, Mr. Lloyd is really the focal point, and the boy is used more as a reference point for observing Mr. Lloyd.
The story of “A Good Job Gone” is told from the perspective of the young, African American boy whose only real concern is having a good job and keeping it, and he is telling this story to a peer, explaining how good he had it. Working for Mr. Lloyd at a Riverside Drive mansion in New York City was actually the best paying job he had ever gotten because Mr. Lloyd regularly paid him twenty dollars a week but would also commonly slip him fives for small things or for when he was leaving for the weekend for nothing at all. The most important point to note about Mr. Lloyd from the boy’s perspective, though, is probably the fact that the man did not have problems with accepting Black people, which is clear based on the fact that he hired the boy with what the reader can assume were no issues.
The story in “A Good Job Gone” is basically one that makes a commentary on White America, and for the most part, this is the purpose of Mr. Lloyd’s character. He is an odd man with unique circumstances. His wife is paralyzed, and he keeps her in a separate house uptown because, though he may genuinely still love her (as evidenced by the fact that he does periodically return to see about her), he cannot have sex with her. He is also struggling with depression, and it is manifesting in his alcoholism and womanizing. He often brings women back to his mansion, some of them consecutive times, but eventually, he always turns his attention to someone else and leaves the previous woman behind. In this depression and this mess of a life he has made for himself, Mr. Lloyd gradually goes insane in the story, and the breaking point for him is the heartbreak he experiences over a Black woman named Pauline from Harlem, which is not terribly far from Riverside Drive.
The depth of the commentary on White America in “A Good Job Gone” is found in the fact that it suggests that only an insane (or borderline), White man is capable of finding comfort with African Americans, and his loss of sanity is meant to lead the reader to a point where the reader wonders if Mr. Lloyd’s fair treatment of the narrator was truly the evidence of his being a good man as the narrator claims. It seems more and more likely as the story draws to a close like Mr. Lloyd is really just a man so desperate for love or companionship that he cannot afford to neglect relationships with Blacks.
He is a White man brought so low despite his wealth that he no longer cares what color his friends or girlfriend are because he cannot afford to. All the women the narrator witnesses Mr. Lloyd with before are White, but when Pauline comes around, Mr. Lloyd becomes happier than he has ever been in the story. He can only feel good about himself in her company despite the fact that she is obviously the same as all the White women he spent time with. All the women he brings home, regardless of color, are really only after his money because they want him to spend it on them. The scene in which Mr. Lloyd and Pauline break up captures the man’s character best. Mr. Lloyd goes to a club in Harlem and finds her with another man, and this man is Black, which the narrator finds particularly amusing. Afterward, they argue while drinking, and Pauline is brutally honest with Mr. Lloyd about the fact that she has no feelings toward him. The speaker says:
I thought Pauline was stupid, talking like that, but I guess she was so drunk she didn’t care.
“Yes, I love that colored boy,” she hollered. “Yes, I love him. You don’t think you’re buying my heart, do you?”
And that hurt the boss. He’d always thought he was a great lover, and that women liked him for something else besides his money. (Because most of them wanted his money, nobody ever told him he wasn’t so hot. His girls all swore they loved him, even when he beat them. […]) (Hughes location 653)
The protagonist actually frames the story much earlier than this scene as evidence that Blacks mess good things up in general. “They’d mess up the Lord if He got too intimate with ‘em” (Hughes 584). The reason he takes this stance is because he feels that Pauline is an example of this. She causes Mr. Lloyd’s depression to spiral out of control, and he is eventually committed to an asylum. As such, the protagonist loses his job, hence the title, “A Good Job Gone.” He is an unreliable narrator, though, because the reader is constantly observing that things are not quite as he describes them. Dialogue is reliable enough, but when the narrator sums up what has occurred, it is not exactly what the reader is likely to have observed.
Any sampling of Hughes’ works can show a wide variety of narrative styles in his writing, and the sampling in this discussion is no exception. “Mother to Son” is a poem that uses the simple, relatable voice, which differs greatly from the ironic and somewhat unreliable voices of “Passing” and “A Good Job Gone.” Different still is the stream of consciousness narration Hughes uses in “Red-Headed Baby,” but the commonality in each of these is the use of first-person narration. This is not to suggest that Hughes restricts himself to first person. In fact, another of his short stories, “Berry,” is written in omniscient third person.
Hughes does seem to prefer the first person perspective most often, but in this story, he narrates in third person. Even so, this third-person narration frames his writing in a way that seems closer to Hughes’s own voice than the other texts discussed here. The prose is very well written, and the organizational structure of sentences throughout can seem recontextualize the narrations of other works like “Mother to Son” or “Red-Headed Baby” because of how well said everything is. For instance, when describing the gossip among nurses about Mrs. Osborne being in love with the married, it reads, “Of course, there wasn’t a word of truth in it, Mrs. Osborn said to herself, admitting at the same time that that Martha Renfield, his wife, was certainly not good enough for the doctor. Anyway, tonight she was not bound on any frivolous errand toward the Doctor’s cottage. She had to see him about this Negro in their midst.”
“Berry” is the story of a home in New Jersey for crippled children. The doctor and the head nurse have a hidden romance despite the doctor’s wife always being around, which serves as a backdrop to the main story. A “kitchen man” quit his job at the home prior to the start of the story, which required Mrs. Osborn, the head nurse, to request a new employee from an employment agency, and the agency sends the home a young, colored boy named Milberry Jones. Everyone at the home is mildly accepting of Milberry, but they take him for granted despite the fact that he is the only employee with a solid work ethic. Dr. Renfield and Mrs. Osborn discuss his pay and deliberately give him two dollars less per hour than they paid his predecessor, and everyone shirks responsibilities just because they know they can make Milberry pick up the slack. Throughout the story, Milberry makes observations about the home that lead him to “[say] to himself, ‘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.”
The most significant observation Milberry makes is that the quality of care and work in all areas is only good when the home has a paying visitor. At all other times, the quality of care and work drops considerably, and it is really the children who suffer for this. No one character in the story has an absolutely correct perspective, but that is just one of several reasons why the realism in this story is so noticeable. Another reason is because the story is told in that third person narration to zoom out and show the reader how these characters collide with one another in different ways and how their interactions have positive and negative effects while also speaking to the racial issues represented.
In a similar way to how Hughes said the Negro was in vogue, some of his works can be considered the “vogue” works of Langston Hughes based on which ones usually get the most attention. Few works by Hughes, or by many other authors for that matter, get more attention than “Mother to Son,” which makes it an excellent representation of those so-called vogue works. As great as the poem is, there are so many other works that show the range of Langston Hughes’s abilities as a writer, and reading them analytically, especially in relation to each other and to “Mother to Son” gives readers a much better understanding of why Langston Hughes is a household name.
As Nifong pointed out, The Ways of White Folks in and of itself is an excellent study of point of view. Given that it is a literary study in its own right, it is somewhat remarkable that it should be collection written entirely by a single author. Additionally, the comparison of these works adds depth to what a reader may have gotten from reading the poem, “Mother to Son.” This is why the works of Langston Hughes should be included in college curriculum because they cover such a wide range of English literature.
Francis, Ted. Realism in the Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. New York, Lincoln, Shanghai: Writers Club Press, 2002. Web.
Hughes, Langston. The Ways of White Folks. New York: Vintage Classics, 1933. Kindle.
–. “Mother to Son.” Tnellen. Web. Nifong, David M. “Narrative Technique and Theory in The Ways of White Folks.” Black American Literature Forum, 15 (3): 1981. Web.
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