Langston Hughes’ The Ways of White Folks, a collection of fourteen short stories (often praised as his finest), was published in 1934. The stories offer commentary on race relations in the United States in the 1920s and the 1930s. More specifically, the stories ruminate on how white people in America treat, or mistreat, members of the African American community. Some stories focus on how white people expect African Americans to conform to their own ideas of how they should be. Other stories focus on how African Americans are brutally punished for challenging (or seeming to challenge) white supremacy in the South. Other stories yet take up the subject of interracial relationships. The stories range in setting and characters, and the characters traverse various locations, urban and rural, throughout the collection.
Overall, the stories ruminate on the great divide between the white community and the African American community in the United States, and on how this divide is constantly reinforced and perpetuated by the white community. On one hand, the white community both mistreats and regards African Americans with hatred. On the other hand, when members of the white community do not perpetuate brutal violence and hatred towards the African American community, they subvert their humanity and person-hood in other ways, such as by expecting them to conform to their ideas and standards. The stories bring the reader up close to this destructive and painful dynamic by simultaneously being frank, angry, tragic, cynical, bitter, and humorous. In general, then, the stories take up the subject of social injustice produced and perpetuated by racism.
For further reading, I would recommend the work itself, and Short Stories: Langston Hughes, as edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper. I would also recommend the eNotes summary and the websites listed below.
During Langston Hughes’s travels to Russia in 1931, he became intensely interested in D. H. Lawrence’s short fiction. As he later described in I Wonder as I Wander, he had never read Lawrence before and remarked that both “The Rocking Horse Winner” and “The Lovely Lady” had made his “hair stand on end.” “I could not put the book down,” he wrote. Furthermore, he wrote: “If D. H. Lawrence can write such psychologically powerful accounts of folks in England . . . maybe I could write stories like his about folks in America.”
This fascination led to The Ways of White Folks, a collection of fourteen stories. The title is derived from the story “Berry,” an account of a young black man who works as a handyman in a home for handicapped children. Berry is exploited and does more than his share of work for a pittance. He cannot understand why this happens and remarks, “The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I rekon they must be a few good ones, but most of em ain’t good—least wise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to them, nothin’ a-tall.”
Overall, the stories comment on the suffering the black community endures at the hands of white society. “Slave on the Block,” for example, details how a white couple strives to make a young black artist fit into their aesthetic mold. Humorously, the young man, rebelling,...
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