I have a bad habit. When someone recommends a book or – especially – a short story that they adore, I just click onto my expansive library site and order it. Sometimes this results in an insurmountable pile of books next to my bed. Sometimes this results in reading so many books at one time (including those I listen to in the car) that I end up finishing none of them.
Someone on Facebook mentioned a brilliant short story by Langston Hughes, a writer well-known for his poetry but whose prose I adore and admire. (I don’t read much poetry unless it’s by Verandah Porche or Charles Coe.) I had to do quite a search until I found a collection that contained that story. By the time my branch procured it from whichever other library in its network held The Ways of White Folks, I had forgotten which story I was intending to read. So I’ve read them all.
I have heard Black people say often that their survival can depend on knowing with precision the ways of white people, while keeping in mind that too often white people don’t have a clue about the sub-texts of Black lives. These stories are bulging with insights into white attitudes, into conscious (“Home”) and unconscious (“Poor Little Black Fellow”) racism. Hughes infiltrates deeply into the psyche of race during the 1920s-30s and by talking about white people, reveals something profound about the environment in which Black Americans must function. (Photo: Gordon Parks 1943)
I saw Toni Morrison, another writer I hold in high regard, speak when she was promoting her book Home. I wrote about the experience including this: “When asked how she achieves her books’ unique points of view, she said, “To take away the gaze of the white male. Once you take that out, the whole world opens up.” She suggested that this is a common approach of top black women writers, but not of African-American male writers, who are more likely to be wrestling with a prominent white male character.”
Langston Hughes does wrestle with white men in some of the stories in this collection. However, in several important stories, Hughes also speaks from the point of view of kindly bourgeoisie white women who take a talented young Black person under their wing with copious expectations and self-satisfaction. Check out the powerful “The Blues I’m Playing” for the interplay between the talented, independent-minded pianist Oceola Jones and her patron Mrs. Dora Ellsworth. Class, in fact, figures quite broadly in these stories, a number of which focus on characters who are musicians. The exploitation of Black women’s bodies is another strong theme as well, not the least in “Red-Headed Baby,” as painful a read as any story in this book.
Thanks to whomever it was that sent me on the search that led to this volume. I hope that I’m paying back the favor by encouraging others to read The Ways of White Folks.