Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1935
In Langston Hughes’s Tambourines to Glory, the tambourine is used as a major metaphor in the story. The metaphor starts with the realization of the double use of the tambourine. First, the musical instrument is used as an inexpensive and simple accompaniment to street-corner singing, a way to help attract a crowd and keep that crowd involved. But once the crowd is roused, the tambourine then takes on a different meaning as it is turned upside down and passed around much like a beggar’s bowl, into which donations are dropped and then carried away. This is the beginning of the metaphor, but it goes a lot deeper when one realizes the similarities between the tambourine’s two different sides and the two main female characters of this story.
Essie and Laura are women on the edge. They live in tight quarters on a tight budget. And when a brilliant idea about an easy way of making money crosses Laura’s mind, she quickly convinces Essie that it could be their ticket out of poverty. “Say, Essie, why don’t you and me start a church.” Essie can sing and Laura knows how to preach. What more could they need? And with this, the two women, whom Hughes patiently describes as two different sides of a similar coin, set off to convert their neighborhood. Their motives may have been somewhat related to each other at the beginning of their venture but as the story develops, it is their expanding differences that stretch them far apart, inevitably forcing their connection to snap.
Essie is a pious woman, innocent and full of love. And when she sings, people stop to listen and eventually join in. Essie is the musical side of the tambourine. Her rhythm is smooth and steady. And the songs she sings are soothing and uplifting. She makes the people around her want to forget their troubles, turn their hearts to God, and believe. Sinners repent, and the psychologically wounded begin to heal. As musical as Essie is, she is like the tambourine in another way too. She needs to be played. She sits all day, alone in her apartment, doing nothing to better herself. She is lonesome but does nothing to ease that pain. She misses her daughter, but does not work toward bringing her child to her. She just sits in a corner and collects dust. Without Laura prompting her, like someone gently beating a hand against the skin of the tambourine, no one would hear Essie’s music. Nothing new would happen in Essie’s life. Someone needs to pick her up, turn her around, and pump the music out of her.
Laura is the motivator. “You God’s handmaiden,” Essie tells Laura, “even if you do not always act like a holy maiden do.” But Laura is also the open, cupped hand. No matter what she does, she is always asking someone to help her. It is not that she is incapable of taking care of herself, but she is better at prompting others to nourish her. She eats at Essie’s house. She sleeps with men who buy her presents. And when she begins to preach, it is not redemption of lost souls that she is seeking. She preaches to make people believe that in giving her money they will be saved. Laura is manipulative and uncaring and hollow. Whereas Essie is open and honest, Laura always has a scheme. Laura is the tambourine turned on its head. People look at the tambourine, and they see an instrument of music, so they do not question the emptiness of the “bowl” formed by the underside of the tambourine. They listen to Laura and think they are hearing the music of God talking to them. In gratitude for inspiring them, they dig into their pockets when Laura passes through the crowd with her concave tambourine, and they do their best to fill it up. At first, only nickels and dimes drop into the tambourine. But as time goes by, that tambourine’s appetite increases. The more Laura gets, the more she wants. There is one big difference, however, between a real tambourine and Laura. Whereas the real tambourine has a finite capacity, Laura’s greed is endless.
The title of Hughes’s novel uses the plural form of the word tambourine despite the fact that the main characters of this story own only one tambourine. They start out with one tambourine and one bible. So why does Hughes use the plural form? What other tambourine is he referring to? Maybe he uses the concept of more than one tambourine to exemplify the differences in the two main characters, anticipating the eventual split between Essie and Laura at the end of the novel. And if this is so, then his meaning of glory more than likely reflects two different definitions.
Essie is one type of tambourine, and because her tambourine differs from Laura’s, the version of glory that she represents is most likely defined in different terms. Glory for Essie implies beauty and grandeur. And Essie does exemplify both. Her beauty reigns best when one looks inside of her. She gets caught up with Laura’s ideas of starting a church not for the money but rather for the peace of mind, the inspiration, and the passion of doing good works. She does not deny herself the rewards of her trade, but she puts aside most of it with an eye to sharing the benefits with those who need it the most. “This is the Lord’s money,” Essie tells Laura. And as the narrator relates: “Essie did not think it [the money] belonged to her. Essie thought it ought to go in some way to the works of God.” She uses the money to enhance the church, enlarging it so more people can come. She wants to add a nursery or pre-school and a medical clinic. Essie’s glory is the beneficial side of pride—a confidence that she can do good.
Laura’s glory is something else. It is more along the lines of credit and fame. She could care less about anyone else’s pain or conversion, unless, of course, it means more profit. She buys sparkling things that make her stand out in a crowd, boasting that she has done well for herself. She takes on a young, flashy lover for the same reason. Laura’s glory is all wrapped up in her pride. Hers is a superficial glory. It does not feed her soul, but rather threatens to destroy her.
Laura’s jealousy and greed have taken control of her. “I wish Essie would get holy enough or lazy enough or something to quit my Temple,” Laura thinks to herself near the end of the story. “All they [the congregation] have to do is see her up there, and they feel happy.” Essie is getting in the way of Laura’s money-making scheme: “But look at the money I would make without her.” These sentiments that come out of Laura sum up Hughes’s intent for writing this novel. The empty tambourine, the one turned upside down, will always be empty, no matter how many times it is filled up with coins. The instrument was made to create music not to collect funds. Just as, in Hughes’s vision, the instrument of the mind, body, and soul was made to create goodness and compassion. Essie’s dreams were answered, and the answers fulfilled her. She wanted to do something worthwhile with her life. She also wanted the means of bringing her daughter back to her. She took advantage of Laura’s ideas and impetus to manifest her dreams. And she was duly rewarded. But she never stopped making music. She enjoyed singing, but the singing was not an end in itself. The singing was an expression of her love and compassion for the people around her. In helping others, she helped herself.
Laura, on the other hand, represents for Hughes all the things that are wrong in a community. Laura is a charlatan and a leech. She has an insatiable hunger for material things. Her goals are ambiguous, and therefore she can never reach them. She wants money, but how much money will ever be enough? Even Laura refers to money as the “apple of evil,” at one point, as if she recognizes to some degree that money will eventually be the cause of her being kicked out of paradise. But she does not pay any attention to her own thoughts. Instead, she tells Essie to don the fancy white robe Laura has bought for her. “Just being robed in goodness,” she tells Essie, “is not enough for the type of folks we attract. They like color, glitter, something to look at.” But of course, Laura is dead wrong. Her values are all mixed up. The riches that the congregation is looking for has very little to do with money and glitter. But Laura lives too close to the surface to understand that. She flits from thought to thought without taking the time to meditate on any one of them. She complains that all that Essie does is sit, exhibiting a passiveness for which Laura is incapable. While Essie sits, Laura schemes. And it is during this quiet time that Essie reaches something so deep inside of her that it connects her to all the people who come to the church. Essie touches the essence of humanity, and it makes her real. So when she sings with that tambourine in her hand, the people not only hear the music, they also feel it.
At the climax, Laura puts on her scarlet robe. And as she stabs her boyfriend in the back, Hughes writes: “Her scarlet robe swept upward like velvet wings.” Then he adds: “Laura’s fists went up into the air and their fingers opened like two frightening claws.” Through these two descriptive phrases, should any reader be left that does not quite grasp what Laura has become, Hughes creates the image of a fallen angel. After her hideous crime, Laura ascends to the altar, and the Tambourine Choir (yes, the tambourines are now multiplied) joins her in a song that contains the lines: “I’m going to lay down my soul / At the foot of the cross, / Yes, and tell my Jesus / Just what sin has cost . . .” This is Laura’s last assault on the church she has helped to create. For she sings words that have, for her, no meaning. She has just killed a man and is about to send her best friend to jail for the crime. She is an empty tambourine, indeed.
Then, in the final chapters, one of the congregation saves Essie’s life, just as Essie had saved hers. “Oh, if I had just brought my tambourine,” Birdie Lee says at the prison, “I would shake it here in jail to God’s glory, to you, Sister Essie, who by your goodness lifted me up out of the muck and mire of Harlem and put my feet on the rock of grace.” And that, by Hughes’s account, is what the tambourine is really meant for. It is to be played for God’s glory, a glory that he uses Essie to elucidate. The final song that Hughes ends this novel with begins: “If you’ve got a tambourine, / Shake it to the glory of God!” And that is just what Essie did.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Tambourines to Glory, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1988
Essie Belle Johnson, one of the main characters of Langston Hughes’s novel Tambourines to Glory, is numb. Her only goal since she arrived in the North has been to get enough money for a twoor three-room apartment so she can bring her daughter to live with her. After more than a dozen years, however, she has only a one-room kitchenette in the Rabbit Warren, a building of tiny oneroom units housing as many as three or four people each. The view out her window is of “a courtyard full of beer cans and sacks of garbage.” There is no child care for these crowded families; children coming home from school entertain themselves until their parents come home from work. But paying rent on this awful place takes most of Essie’s monthly check, so that she has a hard time getting food. She and Laura pool their resources when they can, but in Chapter 4 they have nothing but a pot of rice for dinner, as neither of them can come up with a bit of meat or even some gravy for flavoring.
Essie spends a lot of her time sitting, her mind “kind of empty” in one of her “long, long, very long pauses.” Essie has given up on trying to find a good job, and lives off welfare, but it was not always this way. She tells her friend Laura Reed, “It ain’t easy to get ahold of money. I’ve tried. Lord knows I’ve tried to get ahead.” As a poor, African American, overweight, under-educated woman in the 1950s, Essie does not have much chance of improving her situation. She is resigned to her fate.
Laura has more energy, but she does not see herself as a contributor, or even a potential contributor, to society. Her relief investigator wonders why she cannot hold a job, but Laura thinks of the welfare check as “white folks’ money” and sees no reason why she should work for it if she can get the same amount without working. She has dreams of accumulating cars and furs, but she has no vision of herself doing satisfying or important work. Like Essie, Laura does not have many options. Her most marketable asset is her body—the curvy figure and large breasts with which she can attract a man. Once her beauty is gone, she will have no way to escape her situation. Essie and Laura are the only two people on their floor who do not have jobs to go to, but their lack of industriousness is obviously not the only reason they do not have decent housing—apparently, even many hard-working people cannot find anything better than the “Rabbit Warren.” As Laura reminds Essie, no one can get an apartment in Harlem “unless you got enough money to pay under the table.”
Essie and Laura, ground down by their poverty, are sad at times, and they dream of better days, but they are never angry. Why not? In a wealthy industrialized nation that produces millionaires and mansions, why should there be people who cannot earn a fair wage and live in a decent home? Essie believes she simply “was borned to bad luck.” Where did she get the idea that she cannot change her life?
In the nineteenth century, the philosopher and economist Karl Marx asked similar questions. He wondered why poor people around the world—who outnumber wealthy people by far—did not join together in revolution to make their lives better. Why would thousands of factory workers settle for low wages when a few corporate heads were earning millions from the labor of the many? Capitalist societies, Marx argued, drove people to compete with each other instead of helping each other, and to seek out material goods that are not useful except as signs of status, instead of using surplus money to support others who need it. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), he and economist Friedrich Engels predicted that eventually the working classes would seize control, abolish private property, and distribute wealth evenly and fairly.
According to Marxist theory, lower-class people are trained to accept belief systems, called ideologies, that keep them apart from each other and kept them in the lower class. Why do relatively lowincome Americans fight against relatively lowincome Iraqis, instead of joining together to seize wealth from the people who control it? Because they have accepted an ideology called nationalism that teaches them that their primary loyalty is to their country, not to others in their social class. Why do many poor people accept their poverty instead of challenging the system that keeps them poor? Because they have accepted another ideology— religion—that teaches them that God is in control, and that their reward will come later, when they reach Heaven. In a work called Critique of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right (1844), Marx famously called religion the “opiate of the masses.” He meant that religion worked like the drug opium, keeping all who used it calm and unquestioning.
Marx’s ideas were argued about and expanded on over the next century, and formed the basis for the socialist government of the former Soviet Union. Hughes considered and reconsidered these ideas throughout his long writing career, and often explored the connections between racism and class conflict in his work. In the 1930s, much of Hughes’s writing took a strident political tone, as in his 1932 poem “Goodbye Christ,” published in the labor journal The Negro Worker. In this poem, perhaps his most controversial, the speaker tells Jesus Christ that although “You did all right in your day, I reckon,” he has outlasted his usefulness and should exit the stage. They have “sold [Jesus] to too many,” and “ain’t no good no more.” In this period, Hughes was more outraged than amused by those he saw as phony preachers using religion to become wealthy or famous. He believed they were complicit in keeping poor believers poor and quiet. The poem’s speaker lists several specific offenders:
And please take Saint Ghandi [sic] with
you when you go
And Saint Pope Pius
And Saint Aimee McPherson
And big black
Saint Becton Of the Consecrated Dime.
The poem suggests a replacement for Jesus, “a new guy with no religion at all”: “Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME.”
These first four historical figures were examples for Hughes of how ideology can be misused. Mohandas Gandhi, the leader in the 1930s and 1940s of the independence movement in India, organized nonviolent acts of civil disobedience by Indian peasants. Pope Pius XI, head of the Roman Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939, opposed labor movements and communism. Aimee Semple McPherson, an evangelical preacher in the 1920s, founded the Church of the Four Square Gospel and became a millionaire before financial and sexual scandals eroded her following. And George Wilson Becton was the founder of a church in Harlem, the World’s Gospel Feast, which asked members for donations of “consecrated dimes.” By linking these four, the angry speaker of Goodbye Christ presents them as equally harmful.
Some twenty-five years later, Hughes’s ideas about religion and Marxism had undergone change. He came to admire Gandhi and supported his efforts in the early 1940s, and he became less admiring of Stalin and the Soviet Union. But even though Hughes’s answers were becoming more moderate, he could still be seen wrestling with some of the old questions. In Tambourines to Glory, Laura refers to two of the names on Hughes’s list when she and Essie first think about starting a church: “Remember Elder Becton? Remember that white woman back in depression days, Aimee Semple McPherson, what put herself on some wings and opened up a temple and made a million dollars?” By 1958, when both Becton and Semple were long dead, Hughes’s opinion of their sanctity had not changed, but he was able now to treat their deceptions with humor instead of pure anger. For Laura, of course, Becton and McPherson are good examples—of how to fleece poor believers.
Marxist theory would say that Tambourines to Glory presents a society that has unevenly distributed its material goods and the means to acquire them. In the beginning, Laura and Essie have so accepted their lower-class status that they do not try very hard to move up. Later, Essie and Laura and Buddy improve their status through varying degrees of underhandedness, but there simply are not many other options open to them. For example, no matter how successful they become, they could never get an apartment without the support of Marty, “The fixer, the man behind the men behind the men.” The economic system is not set up to fairly distribute housing.
Laura demonstrates Marx’s idea that a capitalist economy teaches people to value the wrong things. Laura does not care about helping the members of her church. Capitalism teaches competitiveness, a “me first” way of dealing with other people. As Laura says to Essie, who wants to stay after services and talk to the people, “You’ve done helped yourself. You might can help them. . . . but why bother?” Laura has no qualms about taking nickels and dimes from people who can scarcely afford to give them. She does not want a more just world, or a better life for everyone—she wants a fur coat, a Cadillac, and a chauffeur. None of these things has what Marxists call a “use value”; that is, they do not have any real purpose. A worn black coat is just as warm as a fur, and a smaller car (or the bus) would get Laura where she needed to go. Essie’s plain black robes serve her just as well as Essie’s colorful satin robes with contrasting trim. The things Laura has been trained to want have only “sign value,” or the power to impress other people. Laura’s wasteful spending is an example of conspicuous consumption.
Essie demonstrates some qualities that Marxists would admire. She is not greedy or competitive. She thinks that “maybe that is the way to help ourselves—by helping others.” She never takes ownership of the money she takes in from the church, but thinks of it as God’s, and she lends it freely to Birdie Lee when Birdie Lee needs to get a tooth pulled. Essie will not take any of the profit from the fake Holy Water. But Essie does not challenge the way things are. She does not wonder why God would set up a system that dooms millions of people to starvation while others feast. She does not encourage her followers to take political action to try to change the structure of society. What would happen if the thousand members of the Tambourine Temple spent an hour a week converging on City Hall, or the White House, instead of gathering to sing and pray? Essie accepts basic inequalities, and uses her resources to make small improvements within the existing structures.
Hughes never gave up on his idea that some form of a socialist economy would be more just than capitalism. Ultimately, Tambourines to Glory condemns the unequal distribution of power, material goods and hope that capitalism fosters. But what Hughes acknowledges in Tambourines to Glory is that, while religion may in fact be an “opiate for the masses,” the churches often do work that no other institution will do. With Laura out of the picture, Essie will use the Tambourine Temple’s money to provide day care for working mothers, a clubhouse, and a playground. Marietta will help care for the sick. True, in a just society, day care and health care would already exist for everyone who needed it. But in the meantime, in an unjust capitalist society, a church whose leader has a social conscience can stand as an oasis of equality and compassion.
Source: Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on Tambourines to Glory, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
Since the publication of The Weary Blues, poetic account of the enchantment, romance, and tragedy that was Harlem’s back in the Twenties, Langston Hughes has maintained a healthy nostalgia for the Harlem scene, not only because it marks the point of his departure as a man of letters, but likewise because it remains a city within a city, a widely-discussed experiment in large-scale living in the urban ghetto. The impact of the Black Metropolis both as a place and a symbol is illuminated by such Hughes publications as Shakespeare in Harlem (1942), Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951), Simple Takes a Wife (1953), The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), and now Tambourines to Glory. A casual glance at the dates of these volumes attests to the fact that by and large each follows the other in rapid succession.
Tambourines to Glory is an urban folk tale which results from the skillful fusion of some thirty-six smaller segments into a whole more meaningful by far than any of the parts. Such organization as the book displays stems from its consistency in mood and atmosphere and from the unity of action exhibited by the characters. Artistically handled, too, is the selection and arrangement of the details in such a way as to assure suspense and movement. Starting as it does in medias res, Tambourines to Glory has a middle, but scarcely a beginning or an end.
The volume turns mostly upon the sham and pretense of two attractive Harlem tenement women who, with their names on the relief rolls and time on their hands, set about to establish an independent, unorthodox church, the predominance of their own worldly interests notwithstanding. Only Essie’s half-hidden seriousness of purpose and the power that sometimes stems from the singing of powerful hymns lighted up an otherwise drab, second-floor kitchenette in which the idea of a new church was crystallized.
These gospel racketeers, wisely enough, gauged their public utterances to the gullibility of unsuspecting people, and suppressed in their own hearts the knowledge that whiskey, loose women, the numbers game, and the Gospel of Christ make strange bedfellows. Just the same, the church prospered and before long the Reed Sisters (as they elected to designate themselves) moved the church from the corner block to a converted theater building with a thousand seats and their names in lights on the marquee.
The total situation, however, leaves much to be desired. The two-dollar downpayment on the Bible for the new church resulted from Laura’s having hit the numbers. In the absence of proper credentials, Laura and Company found it necessary to produce cash periodically to keep back the law-enforcement officers. And with too many men on her hands and whiskey to buy, Laura frequently put in late appearances at the church services. Before long, however, tragedy settled down upon the enterprise. Laura finally stabbed her boy friend, Big-Eyed Buddy, landed in prison, and left it to Essie and Birdie Lee to purify the church for the first time in its brief history.
Tambourines to Glory is in no sense a satire upon organized religion, or even upon cults as such, but rather a close-up exposé of the manner in which what sometimes passes as religion turns out to be nothing more than a commercial venture in the hands of unscrupulous racketeers.
Touched upon in this new novel are several themes treated elsewhere in Hughes’ published writings. One observes, for instance, that the characters fall for the most part in the category of the nothings, not the dicties; that the author shuns sweetness and light and digs into the difficulties that aggravate men here and now; that an underlying Darwinian emphasis takes its toll upon conventional morality; and that fallen women, wandering irregularly from bar to bar, abound. Mr. Hughes cites facts, but does not draw conclusions; himself a Harlemite, he continues to laugh with the people, not at them.
All in all, Tambourines to Glory underscores a wide knowledge of the New York ghetto (and by implication others around the world) in a period of increasing racial awareness.
Source: John W. Parker, “Another Revealing Facet of the Harlem Scene,” in Langston Hughes: The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Tish Dace, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 589–90.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2121
I suppose, by now, Langston Hughes’s name is synonymous with “Negro Literature.” For many, he is the only Negro in the world of books. This, of course, is unfortunate. But in quite another sense this is as it should be. Hughes is probably the last “major” Negro writer who will be allowed to write what could be called a “Negro Literature” (as differentiated from literature in general): to impose upon himself such staggering limitations.
Now, don’t for a moment take this to be a plea for “assimilationist” literature (i.e., novels, etc. written by Negroes that assiduously avoid any portrayal of Negro life in much the same way that the “Black Bourgeoisie” avoid any attempt to connect them, even vicariously, with blues, jazz, “greens” or anything else even remotely “Negroid”). I am merely saying, that the Negro artist, and especially the Negro writer, A. E. (After Ellison), has come too far and has experienced so much that cannot be, even vaguely, attributed to the “folk tradition.” And that to confine all of his thinking, hence all his writing to that tradition (with no thought as to where that tradition has got to; what significance that tradition has, say, in relation to the macrocosm of American life in general, or for that matter, man’s life on earth) is to deny that there is any body of experience outside of that tradition. A kind of ethnic solipsism. Poet Robert Creeley says (in quite another context . . . but with the same general implications . . .) “A tradition becomes inept when it blocks the necessary conclusion: it says we have felt nothing, it implies others have felt more.” This does not mean that the Negro writer, for instance, ought to stop using Negro Life In America as a theme; but certainly that theme ought only to be a means. For the Negro writer to confuse that means with the end (let us arbitrarily say that end is “art”) is stultifying and dangerous. For these reasons, Hughes, to my mind, is a folklorist. He abdicated from the world of literature just after his second book of verse (Fine Clothes to the Jew: 1927); since then, he has sort of crept backwards and away from significant literature, until finally (with this book) he has gotten to a kind of meaningless ethnic name-dropping.
I am pretty well acquainted with the Negro in literature. I know of Hughes’s early writing: his first novel (Not without Laughter, 1930), his early poetry (some of it very beautiful, a rough mixture of spoken blues, Masters, and Imagists). I know of his affiliation with the “Harlem School” (Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, and a few others) and the importance and merit of the “School” (Toomer’s novel Cane is among the three greatest novels ever written by a Negro in America. The others: Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man). I also know of the “School’s” (or at least Hughes’s) wonderful credo . . . “To express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If the white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter . . . If colored people are pleased, we are glad.
If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” This credo almost singularly served to notify the world that the Negro artist had got to the point where he was ready to challenge that world solely on the basis of his art. Hughes’s attitude, along with the even fiercer attitude of Claude McKay, and the more intellectually sound attitudes of Jean Toomer and Countee Cullen, was a far cry from the “head patting” parochial “literature” of Chesnutt, Dixon, Dunbar and the so-called “Talented Tenth” of the 1890’s. Hughes and the rest were interested in dispelling once and for all the Negro novel of apology. . . . (For example, from an early novel by a Negro, Charles Chesnutt; he relates an incident where “A refined Afro-American is forced to share a Jim Crow car with dirty, boisterous, and drunken Negroes.”) . . . of fawning appeals for “an alliance between the better class of colored people and the quality white folks.” The “School” was also reacting against the need for a Negro artist to be a pamphleteer, a social organizer, or, for that matter, anything else except an artist. This, of course, was the beginning of the Negro in literature; and the beginning of the end for a “Negro literature.”
“Negro literature” is simply folk literature, in the sense I choose to take it. It has the same relationship to literature per se (that is, to that writing which can be fully significant to all the world’s peoples) that any folk art has to art in general. It is usually too limited in its appeal, emotional nuances, intellectual intentions, etc. to be able to fit into the mainstream of world art. Of course, when a folk art does have enough breadth of intellectual, emotional, and psychological concern to make its presence important to those outside of its individual folk tradition, then it has succeeded in thrusting itself up into the area of serious art. And here, by “serious,” I mean anything containing what Tillich calls an “Ultimate Concern” (God, Death; Life after—the concerns of art) and not as some people would have it, merely anything taught in a university. “Negro Literature” is only that; a literature of a particular folk. It is of value only to that particular folk and perhaps to a few scholars, and certain kinds of literary voyeurs. It should not make pretensions of being anything else.
Of course, utilizing the materials of a certain folk tradition to fashion a work of art (the artist, certainly, must work with what he has, and what is closest to him) can lead to wonderful results: Lorca, Villon, Joyce and Dublin, Faulkner, Ellison. But merely relying on the strength and vitality of that tradition, without attempting (either because one lacks talent or is insincere) to extend the beauty or meaning of that tradition into a “universal” statement cannot result in art. Bessie Smith is certainly in the folk tradition, but what she finally got to, through that tradition, is, as they say, “something else.” Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, could almost be sung by Oedipus leaving Thebes. As Pound said of great literature, “language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.” That is art. A work that never leaves or points to some human reference outside a peculiar folk tradition is at best only folklore.
Ralph Ellison is a Negro writer. His novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award as the best American novel of 1952. It is among the best books written by an American in the last twenty years. The novel clearly deals with what is superficially a “Negro theme.” Its characters are primarily Negroes, and its protagonist is a Negro. And although it is this “Negro theme” that gives the book its special twist, the theme is no more than a point of departure for Ellison. It is no more a “folk tale” than Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury. Ellison’s horrifying portrait of a man faced with the loss of his identity through the weird swinishness of American society is probably made more incisive by its concentration on one segment of that society. Ellison uses the folk materials; jazz, blues, church songs, the southern heritage, the whole phenomena of Harlem. But he “charges them with meaning,” extending the provincial into the universal. He makes art. Ellison, by utilizing the raw materials of his environment and the peculiar cultural heritage of the Negro, has not written a “Negro novel” but a novel. Ellison is a Negro writing literature and great literature at that.
To get back to Langston Hughes. Hughes and the “Harlem School” proposed (the credo was written around 1926 in The Nation) essentially to resist writing mere folklore. They were to become “fullfledged” artists; though bringing in the whole of the Negro’s life. Jean Toomer’s novel Cane succeeded; some of Cullen’s poetry, and Langston Hughes’s early verse. Toomer’s is perhaps the greatest achievement. His Cane was the most significant work by a Negro up until Richard Wright’s Native Son. Cullen’s failure to produce great art is not reproachable. He just wasn’t talented enough perhaps. Perhaps Langston Hughes is not talented enough, either. But there are the poems of his early books. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is a superb poem, and certainly there must be something else where that came from. And though he is never as good as a prose writer, Not without Laughter, his first novel, with all its faults, did have a certain poise and concern nowhere after so seriously approached. Some of the famous “Simple” pieces (started as a series of sketches for The Chicago Defender), at their best, contain a genuine humor; but most of them are crushed into mere half-cynical yelping (through a simulated laughter) at the almost mystical white oppressors. At any rate, Hughes has not lived up to his credo. Or perhaps the fault is that he has only lived up to a part of it. “To express our individual dark-skinned selves.” Certainly, that is not the final stance of an artist. A writer must be concerned with more than just the color of his skin. Jesse B. Simple, colored man, has to live up to both sides of that title, the noun as well as the adjective.
Since this is a review of a particular book rather than a tract on the responsibilities of the Negro artist, as it must seem I have made it, I must mention the book, Tambourines to Glory. There’s not much I can say about the book itself. Probably, if a book of similar literary worth were to be written by another author it would not be reviewed (probably, it would have never gotten published). But the Negro writer (especially Hughes, since he is so well known as such) raises certain peculiar questions that are not in the least “literary.” I have tried to answer some of them. But the book is meaningless, awkward, and never gets past its horribly inept plot. In fact, were it not for, say, the frequent introduction of new characters within the book, it would be almost impossible to distinguish the novel, itself from the blurb summary on the jacket. “Laura Reed and Essie Belle Johnson, two attractive Harlem tenement women with time on their hands and no jobs, decide to start their own gospel church on a street corner. Laura wishes to make money. Essie honestly desires to help people.” The characterizations don’t get much past that.
Even as a folklorist Hughes leaves much to be desired. His use of Harlem slang is strained and rarely precise. When a Harlem con man “Big-Eye Buddy” is trying to make little Marietta (from the South), he says hiply . . . “Men don’t start asking a sharp little chick like you what school you’re in.” “Sharp?” Marietta replies incredulously. Buddy says, “Stacked, solid, neat-all-reet, copasetic, baby!” It reeks of the Cab Calloway—Cotton Club—zoot suit era. No self-respecting young Harlemite hipster would be caught dead using such passé, “uncool” language today. As they say, “Man, that stuff went out with pegs.” At least a folk artist ought to get the tradition of the folk straight.
But there are so many other faults in the very structure and technical aspect of the novel, as to make faults in the writer’s own peculiar stylistic device superflous. None of the basic “novelistic devices” are used correctly. Any advance in the plot is merely stated, never worked into the general texture of the novel. By mentioning the landmarks of Harlem and its prominent persons, occasionally, and by having his characters use a “Negro” dialect to mouth continually old stock phrases of Negro dissatisfaction with white America, Hughes apparently hoped to at least create a little atmosphere and make a good folk yarn out of it. But he doesn’t even succeed in doing that this time.
It’s like a jazz musician who knows that if you play certain minor chords it sounds kind of bluesy, so he plays them over and over again; year in, year out. A kind of tired “instant funk.” Certainly this kind of thing doesn’t have anything much to do with jazz; just as Hughes’s present novel doesn’t really have anything to do with either literature per se, or, in its imperfect and shallow rendering, the folk tradition he has gotten so famous for interpreting.
Source: Le Roi Jones, “Tambourines to Glory,” in The Jazz Review, Vol. 2, June 1959, pp. 33–34.
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