How do the characters in Not Without Laughter use definition?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In Not Without Laughter, definition is seen in how characters intersect and interact with one another.  Sandy is the product of definition.  The definition that his Grandmother Hager exerts is one such example.  Hager impresses upon Sandy the need to become a strong and independently minded man of color.  Definition is present in the way she encourages his moral and intellectual development. Sandy is defined in the way Hager loves and cares for him.  

At the same time, Sandy's definition is marked by the understanding of the world around him.  Sandy is able to understand the full implications of racism and, in doing so through the eyes of his aunts, definition is exerted on him. Sandy sees how Harriet has embraced a life of the underworld and transgression as opposed to being controlled by White society.  Anjee reverts into a shell of silent acceptance of criticism that White society heaps upon her.  Tempy seeks to assimilate to such a degree that she does not acknowledge her own identity.  All of these forces help to exert definition upon Sandy.  At the same time, these characters are the results of the world's definition upon them.  Social forces define the individual, while their experiences help to define Sandy's understanding of the world and his place in it.

This dynamic of how the world offers definition and how Sandy understands it are major parts of Sandy's characterization.  Balancing the demands of the harshness of the world and not becoming victim to it is something that Sandy must learn throughout his own definition:  

“I’s been livin’ a long time in yesterday, Sandy chile, an’ I knows there ain’t no room in de world fo’ nothin’ mo’n love. I know, chile! Ever’thing there is but lovin’ leaves a rust on yo’ soul. An’ to love sho ‘nough, you got to have a spot in yo’ heart fo’ ever’body – great an’ small, white an’ black, an’ them what’s good an’ them what’s evil – ‘cause love ain’t got no crowded-out places where de good ones stay an’ de bad ones can’t come in. When it gets that way, then it ain’t love.” 

Hughes constructs his characters in Not Without Laughter as individuals that seek to understand the balance between "livin' a long time in yesterday" and living in a world where "love ain't got no crowded- out places."  Seeking to understand and navigate through such a dynamic is the way in which characters in Not Without Laughter use definition.

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