In the book Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes we get a glimpse into the life of an African American family living in the rural neighborhoods of the 1930s. Through his characters Hughes is able to show many of the black ideologies that prevailed during this time as well as stereotypes and movements that were popular during the era. Hughes focuses in on the life of a young black child, Sandy, and those who surround him in order to convey his political messages.

The first character we are introduced to in Hughes’s book is Hager, Sandy’s grandmother and daytime caretaker. Hager is an old fashion African American woman who has a big influence on the young black Sandy. She encourages him throughout the book to accept his place in society and not to fight back. She urges Sandy to get an education and better himself through his studies. Through this character we clearly see a resemblance to the thoughts of Harlem Renaissance political activist Booker T. Washington. Both Washington and Hager believe that African Americans should focus on their education as a way to better themselves economically. Booker T. Washington often encouraged his fellow African Americans to except segregation, discrimination, and the no vote. He thought that blacks at this time should not beg for equality but rather get educated, get a job, and becoming successful despite their struggles. This belief is depicted perfectly in the character Hager that Hughes has created. She works her entire life simply to support her family but dies poor, penniless, and marginalized.

Hughes sets up the opposite political ideology of Hager in one of her daughters, Tempie, who has moved out of her rural hometown to the city where she has been a successful woman. Tempie believes in black mobility and she often encourages her nephew Sandy to speak proper and receive a higher education. She shuns her background, her life in poverty, and her mother’s traditional black culture. Tempie strives to be equal to a white woman of higher class by attending High church were she can mingle with the black middle class. Her thinking aligns with Harlem Renaissance political activist WEB De Bois in that she pours her money and resources into Sandy’s education thinking that he could be part of the talented 10% that could lead the black community.

In the character Harriet, Hughes shows his readers the rebellious youth movement that was popular among young African Americans during the 1920s and 30s. Harriet is a worldly young woman who is strong minded, opinionated, out spoken, and resistant against fitting in. Throughout the book Harriet has various jobs, such as a blues singer, that show she is part of the renaissance movement. At one point early in the book her mother Hager expresses concern for the girl when she decides to change churches, however this is a demonstration of her rebellion against her mother’s traditional culture that was prevalent for young adults of this time period. Like everyone else, Harriet encourages Sandy to receive as education as a way to pull himself out of poverty and create a brighter future full of opportunities.

All of these characters thus far that have had a profound impact on young Sandy and have captured most of the reader’s attention are female, however there are some male characters. Jimboy, although absent for the book minus mentions here and there, is Sandy’s father. Jimboy is a musician struggling to support his family and is often on the road looking for work. This fulfills the common stereotype of African American fathers being absent from their children’s lives.  Another male character is portrayed through Sandy’s friend Buster who is so light skinned that he is able to pass for a white boy. At the beginning of the book we often see Sandy and Buster spending a lot of time together, however once Buster “passes” he tells Sandy that they can no longer be friends because Sandy will blow his cover and wreck his opportunities. Finally the last and most obvious male character is young Sandy himself, who represents the future and a compound of all the ideologies that have surrounded him his entire life. We leave the book with the image of Sandy attending school and never know if he is successful or not.

Overall Langston Hughes depicts a great deal of ideologies, stereotypes, and movements that are popular for the African American community during this time. Through his characters he is able to portray many different ways of thinking while showing the result these ideologies can have on the youngsters that grow up being surrounded by them. Hughes, I believe, is successful in portraying his political message that education is the most important factor for success in African American life. 


About caitlineichlin

History major at California State University San Marcos and aspiring high school history teacher.
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