Langston Hughes Short Fiction Analysis
Langston Hughes records in The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940) his feelings upon first seeing Africa: “ when I saw the dust-green hills in the sunlight, something took hold of me inside. My Africa, Motherland of the Negro peoples! And me a Negro! The real thing!” The trip to Africa confirmed what he already knew—that the subject matter of his writings would reflect his desire “to write seriously and as well as I knew how about the Negro people.” Most of Hughes’s short stories concern themselves with black people presented from many different perspectives and in both tragic and comic dimensions. Even when a white is the protagonist of a story, as in “Little Dog,” the gentle black man to whom Miss Briggs is attracted is given special focus. Hughes, however, is not racist in his presentation. People, regardless of their racial background, are people first participating in a common humanity before they are individuals distorted by prejudice based on ignorance, by fear, or by social conditions which create a spiritual and psychological malaise, sometimes crippling in its effect.
“Little Dog” tells the story of a white and gaunt middle-aged woman, head bookkeeper of a coal and coke firm for twenty-one years, who, because of her own sense of prudence, responsibility, and concern, sublimates her own desires to care for her mother, and then, after her mother’s death, is left alone and lonely. Although she keeps busy, is comfortably situated, and does not think too much of what she may be missing, she occasionally wonders why she knows no one whom she can appreciate as a friend. One day she inexplicably stops the taxicab in which she is riding in front of a pet shop featuring in its window “fuzzy little white dogs,” and she purchases for herself a puppy at a very steep price. She arranges with the janitor of her apartment building, “a tow-headed young Swede,” to provide food for her dog, which she names Flips, and soon her life revolves around activities centering on Flips.
One day the janitor does not show up to feed the dog; several days pass until Miss Briggs decides she needs to go down to the basement to search out the janitor. With her dog by her side, she knocks at a door behind which she hears sounds of “happy laughter, and kids squalling, and people moving.” The door is opened by a small black boy and soon Miss Briggs discovers that the “tall broad-shouldered Negro” standing amidst the children is the new janitor.
The image patterns and juxtapositions in the story now begin to form meaningful patterns. The white woman, living “upstairs” with the “fuzzy white dog,” is contrasted with the black man and his “pretty little brown-black” children who live “downstairs.” The gentle and kind black man begins to service Miss Briggs’s needs, bringing more food than is good for the dog because he believes the woman desires it and because he is being paid for it; Miss Briggs, however, never tells him that meat every few days is sufficient. Soon Miss Briggs finds herself hurrying home, never realizing that it is no longer the dog but rather the nightly visits of the janitor that compel her to hurry. One evening her words inadvertently reveal her subconscious needs. The black janitor has just left after delivering Flips’s food and she can hear him humming as he returns to his family. Suddenly Miss Briggs says to Flips: “Oh, Flips I’m so hungry.”
Now, although she never consciously knows why, Miss Briggs decides she needs to move; “ she could not bear to have this janitor come upstairs with a package of bones for Flips again. Let him stay in the basement, where he belonged.” The accumulation of references to bones, meat, and services provides for the reader, if not for Miss Briggs, a moment of epiphany: “He almost keeps me broke buying bones,” Miss Briggs says to the tall and broad-shouldered black janitor. “True,” the janitor answers her. The sustenance the black man provides for the dog is no sustenance for the gaunt and bony woman, nor is the dog, like children, sufficient to keep memory of the departed alive. Miss Briggs moves and shortly is completely forgotten by the people in the neighborhood in which she had lived.
“Thank You M’am”
If Miss Briggs seems a portrait of a woman dead before she is buried, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones of “Thank You M’am” is a picture of middle-aged woman still vital and vigorous, although she, too, lives alone; and although it appears she has no children of her own, she is still potent, giving new life to a young black boy who attempts to mug her. The child is no match for the woman, who is identified with her purse so large “that it had everything in it but a hammer and nails.” She drags him home with her, sees that he washes, and shares with him her frugal meal. Her presence is so overpowering that the boy is more fearful of trying to get away than of staying, but she breaks down his resistance when she speaks to him of common problems. “I was young once and I wanted things I could not get.” The boy waits expecting the “but” to follow. The woman anticipates: “You thought I was going to say, but I didn’t snatch people’s pocketbooks. Well, I wasn’t going to say that. I have done things, too, which I would not tell you, son. Everybody’s got something in common.” The woman’s actions, however, tell the boy more than her words do, and at the end of the story the boy is unable to use words, although his lips try to phrase more than “Thank you M’am.”
One of Hughes’s most frequently praised stories is “Professor.” Focused through the point of view of its protagonist Dr. T. Walton Brown (T for Tom, Uncle Tom?), the story examines how a black professor of sociology “bows” and “bobs” like a puppet on a string to members of the wealthy white establishment, doing only those things of which they approve, saying what they want to hear, and, although at times he knows the lies diminish him, still allowing his own needs to determine his behavior patterns.
Bitterly ironic in tone, the story begins with the juxtaposition of Brown in dinner dress against the lobby of a run-down segregated hotel and Brown cared for by a white chauffeur who tucks the professor carefully into the luxury of a limousine to carry him through the black ghetto to a private house as large as a hotel. Brown’s posture and attire are carefully contrasted with the “two or three ash-colored children” who run across the street in front of the limousine, “their skinny legs and poor clothes plain in the glare of the headlights.” So also are the streets and buildings contrasted—“the Negro streets”: “pig’s knuckle joints, pawnshops, beer parlors—and houses of vice, no doubt—save that these latter, at least, did not hang out their signs” with the “wide lawns and fine homes that lined the beautiful well-lighted boulevard where white people lived.”
Brown has bought entry into the white establishment by prostituting himself, by accepting the degradation of the constant diminishing of his selfhood and his negritude. He listens to his white counterpart say: “Why, at our city college here we’ve been conducting some fine interracial experiments. I have had some colored ministers and high school teachers visit my classes. We found them most intelligent.” Although at times Brown is moved to make slight and subtle protest, in the end he agrees with the biased white people, saying “You are right.”
Brown’s behavior is dictated by his desire for the money the white people offer him as long as he conforms to their expectation. Money will buy Brown prestige, will enable his college to survive, and will further his career. Money will also “take his family to South America in the summer where for three months they wouldn’t feel like Negroes.” Thus, he dances to the “tune of Jim Crow education,” diminishing both himself and his race. Although carefully constructed, the story offers no subtleties beyond the ironies present; image patterns are at a minimum, complex symbolism nonexistent. Characterization, too, is sparse. The reader learns only enough about the professor to make his behavior immediately credible, but a traditional plot line moves with careful pacing to climax and pointed resolution, and the theme overshadows technique.
Similar in theme and technique to “Professor” is “Fine Accommodations.” In this story, a young black porter learns that the Dr. Jenkins, booked into sleeping car accommodations, is not the leader of his race and “fine man” the naïve porter expects but rather another Uncle Tom who keeps on “being a big man” by “bowing to Southern white customs,” by helping to keep poor black people just where they have always been “all the time—poor and black.” At the end of the story, the porter makes the point of the story: “The last Negro passenger I had in that drawing room was a pimp from Birmingham. Now I got a professor. I guess both of them have to have ways of paying for such fine accommodations.”
From the perspective of complexity, subtlety, and power, “Big Meeting” is a considerably better story. Told in the first person by a young black boy who with a companion is observing a church revival meeting held in the woods, the story recounts the boy’s moment of epiphany when he realizes, if only subconsciously, that as a cynical observer rather than a participant in the ritual he is more akin to the white folks gathered to watch than to his own people. Making use of dialect and gospel songs, Hughes builds the story to a powerful sermon where the preacher recounts the betrayal of Christ to the accompaniment of echoing refrains and then moves the sermon to the cadences of poetry:
They brought four long nailsAnd put one in the palm of His left hand.The hammer said Bam!They put one in the palm of His right hand.The hammer said Bam!They put one through His left foot Bam!And one through His right foot Bam! “Don’t drive it!” a woman screamed. “Don’t drive them nails! For Christ’s sake! Oh! Don’t drive ’em!”
In the woods observing the action, the narrator and his companion are near enough to a car full of white people to overhear what they are saying as they comment in ways showing their biases, limitations, and prejudices. As the narrator hears these comments, he begins to respond, but not enough to cause him to identify with the participants in the service. Rather, both he and his companion seem more concerned with the behavior of their mothers who are taking part in the church rituals.
At the climax of the story, the narrator hears his mother’s voice: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?/ Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?” At the same time as the mother cries out the questions, the preacher opens his arms wide against the white canvas tent, and his body reflects a crosslike shadow. As the mother asks the question again, the white people in the car suddenly drive away creating a swirl of dust, and the narrator cries after them, “Don’t go. They’re about to call for sinners. Don’t go!”
The boy’s cry to the white people reflects his understanding of the parallel setup between the white people and the betrayers of Christ. Hughes goes further than this, however, and provides in the last sentence of the story an epiphanic moment: “I didn’t realize I was crying until I tasted my tears in my mouth.” The epiphany projects a revelation dimly understood by the narrator but clearly present—that as bad as the white people’s behavior seemed, his own rejection of his people and heritage was worse.