Langston Hughes
New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
(The stories themselves go back to as early as 1933.)
236 pages.

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2006

This is a simply marvelous and challenging read. It is very easy to forget, even not notice, one is in the hands of a masterful writer, and that one is reading beautiful and significant prose. It all flows so simply and gently. I often get a picture in my head of a group of sensitive, well-experienced people sitting around the table after a lovely dinner, lingering and chatting over wine. Some topic would come, up, say crime on the street, and someone would say – that reminds me of this woman in our apartment, and thus the opening story would flow out – “Thank You, Ma’m.” The same could be true of nearly every story. They just flow out of everyday experience. They describe people any one of us might know or have met, that tell of everyday events any one of us might have experienced. One by one they have the feel of oral tales, “incidents” rather than crafted stories.

Yet if one takes just a tiny step back, there is a rush or realization that you are in the hands of a master craftsman of the short story genre. The tales are tiny verbal portraits of everyday life, often 2-3 pages. There are no great crises or life shattering events, just things anyone of us might experience at any time.

However, there are recurrent themes, the most common one being the experience and frustrations, difficulties and injustices of life for black Americans in the United States. Another common theme is the struggle for a decent life among the underclass in the U.S. This theme overlaps with Hughes’s concentration on life in “Negro” American, but transcends it since some of the stories are not at all color-bound. A couple are even about white underclass folks and their hardships. This is especially the case in “No Place To Make Love, about a young white southern boy who marries his love, is virtually kicked out of his home and now is in the “big” northern city looking for work in the Depression.

Some of the themes even overlap a great deal with the concentration by the Existentialists on the tragedies of human existence and the struggle to find and maintain meaning. Within that theme I was especially moved by “The Gun” in which a black woman who has lived a life of difficulty, constantly moving about searching for meaning, and finally resolves to commit suicide. But the acquisition of a gun to do this deed gives her a rather ironic sense of security. She has the possibility of her own death in her hands every night as she fondles the gun as one might a lover, and that odd freedom gives her the courage and energy to go forward. I was so moved by the story itself and the closeness to Existentialist themes, that I have placed the whole story on my Existentialist site.

The opening paragraph gives a vivid description of the experience of being “other” in the world around oneself.

Picture yourself a lone bird in a cage with monkeys, or the sole cat in a kennel full of dogs. Even if the dogs became accustomed to you, they wouldn’t make the best of playmates; nor could you, being a cat, mate with them, being dogs. Although, in the little town of Tall Rock, Montana, the barriers were less natural than artificial (entirely man-made barriers, in fact), nevertheless, to the only Negro child in this small white city made you a stranger in a strange world; an outcast in the house where you lived; a part of it all by necessity, and yet no part at all.

Another very powerful story was Big Meeting, about a two-week love revival meeting for Negroes in the south. The narrator is a young teen who is sort of hiding out on the edges of the wood watching. The two boys are making fun of their elders, even their own mothers. But when a car full of local whites pull up and begin to also make great fun of the Negroes, the narrator undergoes a profound change. This story moved me a great deal, and there is the marvelous irony that the very culture which has grabbed the elders and which the young teen is criticizing from some sense of shame and superiority, is one that by the end of the story he himself has embraced. As the white laugh on, he says:

That was my mother dancing and shouting. Maybe it was better than a show, but nobody had any business laughing at her, least of all white people.

I looked at Bud, but be didn’t say anything. Maybe he was thinking how often we, too, made fun of the shouters, laughing at our parents as though they were crazy -- but deep down inside us we understood why they came to Big Meeting. Working all day all their lives for white folks, they had to believe there was a “halleluian side.”

I looked at Mama standing there singing. and I thought about how many years she had prayed and shouted and praised the Lord at church meetings and revivals, then came home for a few hours’ sleep before getting up at dawn to go cook and scrub and clean for others. And I didn’t want any white folks, especially whites who wouldn’t let a Negro drink a glass of soda in their drugstore or give one a job, sitting in a car laughing at Mama.

In another story one strong black man is deeply concerned that his son may be gay. His concern seems less about the gayness itself that the fact that this just compounds the boys life difficulties

John was more disturbed about his son’s transition than if they had been white. Negroes have enough crosses to bear.

The very last story is one of the few humorous tales and is the title story, Something In Common. Two old American guys, both very down on their luck, meet in a Hong Kong bar. One is a Kentucky colonel, the other a Negro from the north. Their talk falls apart when it stumbles on to the race issue and after exchanging some racial slurs, they are about to fight it out when the bartender, a young and muscular British rushes around the bar, grabs them and pitches them rudely out the door into the gutter. The story ends as the two pick themselves up, dust each other off and head back into the bar, now avid nationalist friends planning to teach the Brit a lesson about messing with Americans. I chuckled at this ending of the book, as the bartender must have when he saw the two stumbling re-entry of these two goofs.

Bob Corbett


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