Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Langston Hughes' "Not Without Laughter"

Just recently I read the book "Not Without Laughter" by Langston Hughes (1902-1967). I bought it in the U.S. last year (possibly when we were in Memphis...) and most likely because I knew the name Langston Hughes but had never read anything by him. I think he's best known as a poet but this is a prose book – the story of a young boy, Sandy, and his life in a small Kansas town in the early 1900s. It is about family life, the racial prejudices of the time, poverty, work, music, education... in some ways a fairly straightforward coming-of-age novel (first published in 1930).

However although "Not Without Laughter" is a slim book (about 200 pages) I would have to say that it is, quite simply, one of the best books I have ever read. I would guess that a lot of the material is from Hughes' own life and yet it still feels very much like a fictional story. It is very moving and yet it isn't at all sentimental or cloying. It is beautifully, delicately written and yet it spreads its aim wide too (the reader witnesses many different points of view via Sandy, his hardworking Grandmother, his lovelorn mother, his upwardly mobile aunt, his downwardly mobile aunt, his various friends and employers...). And all this is encapsulated in such a small book – it's a real piece of work. I can't believe I've never come across it before.

It did make me wonder why some schools don't study this instead of the inevitable "To Kill a Mockingbird" (or at least as well as - they would make great companions for study)? Maybe I'm out-of-date (I hope so), maybe this is different in other countries... but when I did some teaching in England (not that long ago) it was still Lee's book that was high on the list and there was no sign of this one. Aged 15 or so (back in the early 1980s) I studied Harper Lee's classic (and loved it) but how much I would have loved to have read "Not Without Laughter" too. Whilst Lee's book has racial prejudices as a central theme (if in a southern town and set slightly later in the 1930s) all of the main characters are white whereas in "Not Without Laughter", instead of the black characters being bit parts ("Mockingbird's" accused Tom Robinson), they are centrestage. And "Not Without Laughter"s clever Sandy is every bit as a strong a child-narrator as clever Scout (even if the book does lack the high drama of "Mockingbird's" court case). So why is this book so little mentioned (over here anyway... is it better known in the US, American readers?). This is not to say that kids shouldn't study "To Kill a Mockingbird" (not at all) but just a wonder about balance, about how some writers and books get the label "classic" and read for ever whilst others get forgotten, overlooked, passed by.

Unless of course this is just my ignorance and everyone else knew this book but me. Is that the case?

Here's a bit from "Not Without Laughter" (from near the end as Sandy approaches adulthood):

"I don't blame him," thought Sandy. "Sometimes I hate white people, too, like Aunt Harrie used to say she did. Still, some of them are pretty decent my English-teacher, and Mr. Prentiss where I work. Yet even Mr. Prentiss wouldn't give me a job clerking in his shop. All I can do there is run errands and scrub the floor when everybody else is gone. There's no advancement for colored fellows. If they start as porters, they stay porters for ever and they can't come up. Being colored is like being born in the basement of life, with the door to the light locked and barred - and the white folks live upstairs. They don't want us up there with them, even when we're respectable like Dr. Mitchell, or smart like Dr. Du Bois... And the guys like Jap Logan well, Jap don't care anyway! Maybe it's best not to care, and stay poor and meek waiting for heaven like Aunt Hager did... But I don't want heaven! I want to live first!" Sandy thought. "I want to live!"

To finish off here is Hughes reading one of his poems:


The Bug said...

I haven't read this before - and in fact I didn't know that Langston Hughes wrote fiction as well as poetry! I'll have to check it out to see what I think...

The Weaver of Grass said...

Isn't it lovely when you get a book you really enjoy Rachel? With me it happens quite rarely. Did you watch the TV version of Birdsong and have you read the book? I thought it was one of the best books I have ever read and I must say that I thought the TV version was excellent. I wonder what Sebastian Faulkes thought to it. I would love to know.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Dana. I guess this book isn't that well-known in the U.S. then. Your historian might like it too - it's very much a slice of history... pictures of a time.

Weaver - I did read "Birdsong" years back. I thought it was good, certainly, but can't say I thought it was as amazing as lots of people seemed to. I haven't watched the TV adaptation that's been on recently either - though I'm sure many people have (and I read a not-very-complimentary review of it somewhere). I don't watch many dramas or films set in wartime... maybe I get this from my Mum who always said living through a war was bad enough and that she didn't want to watch it on TV as well. I grew up with two brothers though so there were plenty of war films on in my youth.

Jeanne Iris said...

Hi Rachel,
Langston Hughes is one artist (musician, poet, fiction writer) who has been quoted numerous times and read by many. His book,_Not Without Laughter_, won the Harmon Award in the early 1930s I believe. Below is a poem of his, written in 1938, that I have used in my classes. You may recognise some famous lines here regarding 'a dream.' Perhaps, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. also admired Langston's brilliance.

Let America Be America Again
by Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks Jeanne. What I really want to know is how much "Not Without Laughter" is still read in the US (and beyond) as I'd not come across this one at all. I know his poetry (a bit) but I really didn't know how good his prose was (this book anyway).

Niamh B said...

I'll have to watch out for that one, thanks for posting. was completely ignorant of it!

Rachel Fox said...

Let me know what you think of it if/when you do read it.

Dominic Rivron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dominic Rivron said...

I think those who write syllabuses (syllabi?) should make a real effort to "ring the changes". OK, so you have a stream of new people reading the books you've set every year and whatever you set is new to them but then when everyone reads the same book when they're, say, 15 or 16 it has a dreadful effect on the aura of that book as a work of art, I think. Kes -which I've never read- is probably a case in point. Or is it just me?

"Ten good books people could study at school but usually don't" would be an interesting list.

Rachel Fox said...

I think the poetry read in schools has read a lot (certainly when I did some teaching in about 2001 there was Duffy, Armitage etc. on the syllabus which, obviously, I didn't study... as it wasn't written!). But the novels seemed very much the same.

I'm not even sure if we did study "Kes" at school. I have a vague memory of it so maybe we did... early on... we were in't north.

Let's see that list then...

swiss said...

i really wanted to comment on nthis but what with work and work and t's mum visiting etc etc etc there's not enough hours in the day. i like langston hughes and have read most of his poetry but not this, mainly because i've never seen it on any cananical style list olf african american literature (thta could be down to me having a man look tho).

i did have a scope for stats at the american library association but they weren't forthcoming. you could have a look in bonnie greer's bio of him, available via amazon for the princely sum of 88p!!

Rachel Fox said...

Might have to read that Greer book... but for now I have a stack of 'to reads' already that should last me till next Xmas!

I think you'll like this one. For me it's simple but quite magnificent.

Anita said...

Langston Hughes is a jewel to read books, poetry etc. He is well known in the U.S. I believe that in our school system we all have to be more adamant of our self education than what is on the reading list of books for grades. Hughes is probably more on the list to reading if you take an African-American studies course in college. I agree with you that both To Kill AMockingbird and Not Without Laughter should be required readings. They both are interesting and thought provoking reads.