The semi-autobiographical novel is set primarily in small-town Kansas. It follows the protagonist, Sandy Rogers, through his childhood and adolescence. Sandy grows up in a multigenerational environment dominated by women. His mother, Annjee, and grandmother, Hager, have especially strong influences on him.
While Sandy shows an intellectual inclination, his family is divided over his future prospects. As his father, a musician, moves in and out of his daily life, his mother must make decisions about her own future as well as that of her son.
Sandy and his friends face discrimination in social settings, such as an amusement park, and struggle with an uninspiring school. Sandy must also contribute to the family income, and through his job in a hotel, he learns harsh lessons about race relations.
One traumatic event is his grandmother's death, after which Sandy must live with his pious aunt, Tempy, who imposes strict standards on him. She is contrasted with the artistic aunt, Harriet, who runs off to live the high life.
As Sandy grows older, his mother moves from Kansas to Chicago. Sandy joins her there, putting him into a radically different cultural environment. This in turn shapes his attitude about his potential future as a creative, educated person.
Not Without Laughter concentrates on the childhood and adolescent years of Sandy Rogers, a sensitive and highly intelligent black boy growing up in a small Kansas town. His grandmother, known to the community as Aunt Hager, is the center of his life. She washes clothes for the Reinharts, a white family, and she takes care of him while his mother works for Mrs. J. J. Rice, a snobbish upper-class white woman. Later, Hager becomes Sandy’s sole guardian after his mother, Annjee, leaves to join her husband in Detroit and Harriett, the last daughter to remain at home, runs away with the carnival that visits Stanton.
Sandy’s father, Jimboy, is rarely home and has trouble maintaining steady employment. Sandy adores his father’s lively personality and talent and loves to hear his Aunt Harriett and Jimboy sing the blues. Sandy is a gregarious boy and enjoys the usual pursuits of adolescents, but there is a studiousness in him and a sense of responsibility that his grandmother encourages. Indeed, he is deeply influenced by his grandmother, who praises the virtues of hard work and a religious life.
Hager expects Sandy to be a great man; she hopes that he will not disappoint her, as her daughters have. Harriett has forsaken the family’s Baptist beliefs, first for streetwalking and then for a career as a singer; Annjee has married a lazy man who cannot provide for his family; Tempy has become a middle-class black Episcopalian who is ashamed of her lower-class roots. While Sandy is most influenced by Hager, each one of his aunts also educates him to life’s different possibilities, so that he is the only character with a vision of the whole, of the different ways in which his people have reacted to being black in a white-dominated world.
Annjee copes with her irascible white employer by simply ignoring her constant criticism. Harriett, on the other hand, resorts to anger and prefers to lead a “life of sin” than to be beholden to white employers for the meager wages they offer. Tempy has remodeled herself along the lines of her white employer and learns to behave in refined ways that whites will admire. Hager apparently acquiesces to white dominance, but she passes on to Sandy an indomitable spirit that will ensure his integrity. When a white Southerner attempts to humiliate him, Sandy turns away and hurls his shoeshine equipment at the laughing whites in the hotel where he works. His anger, however, is momentary, and he does not let it poison his efforts to learn from everyone, white and black alike.
Although life in a small Kansas town on the eve of World War I is often grim for its black inhabitants, it is “not without laughter”—as the title of the novel suggests. It is a close-knit...
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