Themes

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129

Faith and Religion
The central tension in Tambourines to Glory is between Essie, who sincerely believes in God and wants to help people find peace through faith, and Laura, who sees the church simply as a way to get money. The difference originates in their childhood: Essie’s mother insisted Essie attend church every week when she was a girl, but Laura “seldom went . . . and never regular.” Although neither woman has been to church in years, Essie has happy memories, especially of the music. And when the two are joking about starting a church and Laura sings, “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on,” she starts to mean it. From the first, Essie and Laura expect different things from the church, and each finds what she is looking for. As the narrator explains, “Playing and singing and talking were the only things about their corner that interested Laura, but these were the least that interested Essie.” Essie wants to help the people who stop to hear them; Laura wants to help only herself. Essie finds a new engagement with her own life—a community, and a way to bring her daughter to live with her. Laura gets money, a fur coat, a Cadillac, and a handsome young man.

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The question that repeatedly troubles Essie is one of the central questions of the novel: “Is we doing right?” Is the Tambourine Temple a force for good, although it originated as a scam? Does it matter that Laura’s motives, at least, are impure? The fact is, the church really is helping people change their lives. Chicken Crow-for-Day does stop his “Sniffing after women, tailing after sin, gambling on green tables,” and Birdie Lee gives up drinking. Essie finds the energy to get off her chair and shake off her lethargy. Marietta and C. J. will have a safe and comfortable—if a little dull—life together. And the Tambourine Temple, with Laura out of the picture, is going to open a day care center, a clubhouse, and a playground. Amused as he was by charlatan preachers who made themselves wealthy, Hughes could not ignore the contributions the churches made to their communities, and the changes a faith in God made in people’s lives. Ultimately, perhaps it does not matter whether the preacher is sincere or even whether God really exists, especially for people with so little else to believe in. As the narrator explains about one of the Reed Sisters’ songs, “For many there living in the tenements of Harlem, to believe in such wonder was worth every penny the tambourines collected.”

But in the end, Good triumphs over Evil. Laura and Buddy are punished for their faithlessness. Buddy loses his life. Laura loses her self-respect, her freedom, her Cadillac, and her partnership and friendship with Essie. Although Laura also gives up all of her cash, putting it into the bank in the church’s name before her arrest, by the end of the novel Laura has still not turned from her wicked ways. Her final two lines are “I have nothing now, Essie, but Jesus—since He comes free” and “Maybe somebody’ll buy me a drink.” Essie accepts her hours in jail and her suffering as penalty for her gravest error: failing to drive Laura and Buddy from the church. As she says, “Religion has got no business being made into a gyp game.”

Ghetto Life
Just as Tambourines to Glory is a humorous but largely accurate portrayal of the storefront churches of Harlem in the middle of the twentieth century, it also illuminates other aspects of lowerclass Harlem life. One of the great contributions of Hughes and other writers of the Harlem Renaissance was that their work portrayed the daily lives of African Americans, realistically and respectfully, in ways that American literature had not done previously. The lives of the lower class were especially invisible to the reading public. While many knew about the Harlem Renaissance, about the intellectual life of Harlem, and about the exciting night life available to wealthier whites and blacks, the underclass was nearly invisible. Hughes knew that Laura and Essie and Buddy and Birdie Lee were not the people who would buy his novel; his intention was to tell their stories to people who knew only one side of Harlem.

The building where Essie and Laura live is a large apartment building with “a courtyard full of beer cans and sacks of garbage.” The building has been carved up into a surprising number of tiny “kitchenette” units, each with a gas burner and a sink. Essie and Laura, who dream of one day having a two- or three-room apartment, have welfare as their only source of income, but everyone else who lives on their floor has a job. Laura has held several jobs in the past, but has not been able to hold one very long. The available work does not pay well, since it has not enabled even the working residents to find better housing. The women are often hungry. Even Essie, who does not waste money on gambling or alcohol, often has no more than rice to eat if Laura cannot contribute a bit of meat or vegetables to the pot.

Almost all of the characters in the novel and in the neighborhood are African American, but there are white men behind the scenes making profits. (It has been estimated that in 1929, eighty percent of Harlem’s businesses were owned by whites.) Laura urges passers-by to put some of their money in the tambourine rather than giving it to “the paddys [Irishmen] that owns these Harlem guzzle joints,” or, in other words, “instead of it all going right to the white man.” White police officers, apartment managers, and fire inspectors will take bribes to overlook violations or grant favors. The mysterious Marty, another white man, is in charge of the numbers racket in the neighborhood. Men like Buddy can earn a decent living working for the gambling or sex trades, but all assume and accept that white men are in charge.

This Harlem is populated with “pimps and gamblers and whores,” and although she has never had any trouble, Essie carries a knife for protection. But there is also the young artist who paints beautiful murals on the church walls, and C. J., who attends college and plays the guitar. Hughes is not presenting Harlem as bad or dangerous, but as a place pulsing with life of all sorts, with “Auto horns . . . honking, taxis flying by, arc lights blinking, people passing up and down the street, restaurants and bars full.” Even for the poor it is an exciting, teeming city—“Mighty magnet of the colored race . . . Harlem, a chocolate ice cream cone in New York’s white napkin.”

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