Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Not Without Laughter, there is considerable discussion of the “color line” which whites use to discriminate against blacks and which blacks use to discriminate against one another. The lighter the skin, the more opportunity there is for a black to “pass” as white. Buster, one of Sandy’s friends, plans to take advantage of his fair features in exactly this way. Similarly, some blacks prefer “high yallers”—black women with fair skin.

Because of the novel’s rich reporting of black speech, of the way blacks sing and dance and embroider their stories, it is clear that Hughes is exploring the extraordinary impact of a whole culture on the acute imagination of a young black man. Hager suggests that, like Booker T. Washington, Sandy will be representative of his race. Tempy, on the other hand, favors the example of W. E. B. Du Bois because of his more militant and more intellectual conception of progress. Whereas Washington emphasized the equipping of blacks for learning a trade, Du Bois worked for the education of his people on the highest levels. Sandy, whose youthful experience includes both menial labor and intense book learning, is clearly meant to be a synthesis of these two types of leaders.

While he does not minimize the damage and the hurt done by slavery and its aftermath, Hughes chooses in this novel to emphasize the creativity of black people. Black children in Not Without Laughter experience an acute sense of rejection,...

(The entire section is 609 words.)