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Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Home,” first published in Esquire magazine in 1934, juxtaposes the sensitivity of a young, black classical violinist and jazz musician returning home ill from Europe against the unconcealed racism of his small southern hometown. Hughes subtly puts the story in a historical context by telling the reader that the musician, Roy Williams, landed in New York “on the day that Hoover drove the veterans out of Washington.”

Williams arrives home, formally dressed, and becomes aware that he is home when he hears the racial slurs of the white men at the train station. He is warmly received by his mother, Sister Williams, who organizes a fund-raising concert at the black church which she attends. Predictably, the fifty-cent seats at the front of the church are occupied by whites, and the twenty-five-cent seats in back are occupied by blacks. Art does not, as Hughes points out often in his writing, integrate people socially.

After the concert, Williams meets a woman in the audience who has caught his eye, a white woman wearing a cheap coat and a red hat, someone who seems to understand the classical music he played. She is Miss Reese, an aging music teacher at the local white high school. Miss Reese invites Williams to perform at the white high school, after which their respect for each other deepens.

Williams becomes increasingly ill and has difficulty sleeping, so he goes on late-night walks, on which he is sometimes formally dressed. On one such evening, he meets Miss Reese stepping out of a drug store. He bows to her in greeting and extends his hand just as a group of “white young ruffians with red-necks” comes out of the movie theater. When they see him reaching toward a white woman, they attack him. (Among the group of attackers, Williams thinks he recognizes his white childhood playmate, Charlie Mumford.) After beating Williams, the mob drags him to the woods, where they strip him and leave his body hanging there all night, “like a violin for the wind to play.” One of Williams’s last thoughts is that he knows that now he will never get home to his mother.

Though the image of respect between the two musicians offers a lingering redemptive image, Hughes makes it clear that art can neither transform the mob nor protect the artist from racism. The story, anthologized in The Ways of White Folks (1934), deals honestly with the futility of a black artist trying to survive in such an environment.

The theme of the inequitable distribution of wealth also pervades “Home.” Williams recalls the prostitutes in Austria and Germany, young women trying to get enough money to feed themselves and their parents. He feels heartsick at the wealth he sees squandered in the nightclubs where he performs. He thinks of home as a place where poverty is not so bad. Yet, when Williams lands in New York, he finds most of his old friends—musicians and actors—unemployed, hungry, and begging for handouts. Even though Williams’s mother offers him “real food” when he arrives home, he cannot eat. The poverty Williams finds at home is linked to racism, and his mother’s food cannot cure that illness.

“Home,” divided into six sections, contains many allusions to jazz and classical music. The dialogue is rhythmic and poetic, and section 3 reads more like poetry than prose. Section 4 begins with a concert program. The final section is...

(The entire section is 824 words.)