Langston Hughes is by and far most renowned for his poetry. The heavy jazz and blues influences and evocative themes make any poem you read from the author one that stays with you. However, Hughes wrote everything. He wrote operas and essays. He wrote children’s books and memoirs. He even wrote two novels early in his career.
This is about one of those novels. Not Without Laughter, published in 1930, was Langston Hughes’s debut novel — though, he’d already published two critically-acclaimed poetry collections by that point. It’s the coming-of-age story of one Sandy Rodgers, a Black boy growing up in Kansas in the early 20th century.
Langston Hughes Injects His Signature Musicality Into a Coming-of-Age Story for Black America
As is characteristic of Langston Hughes, the prose in Not Without Laughter is highly kinetic and run through with pride, love, and other big emotions. There are moments in this story where you are burned up with anger and want to shield Sandy from the world. Then, there are the moments where you’re ecstatic. The kinetic energy of Hughes’s writing makes it almost multisensory. You hear, smell, and feel this story almost as vividly as you see it.
There’s this constant movement, this pulsing rhythm so that you’re never in one place quite long enough to sink into it. It’s not real like standing still under the hot sun. It’s real like dancing — being aware of the movement and contortion of your body without ever being quite sure how much of that movement is done of your own will and how much the will of the music.
Within that rhythmic and unceasing energy, Hughes uses his central character, Sandy, to explore the diversity of ideas and approaches within the Black community to survive the daily injustices and indignities of the Jim Crow era.
Sandy comes of age asking all the questions that children of any race ask: where do babies come from? What should I be when I grow up? How do I know the difference between right and wrong? Added to this already confusing jumble of things one must learn about life is the question of how to navigate the harsh racial divide in America which Sandy had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of.
To find an answer to this last question, he examines the different choices that the women who raised him made. The grandmother, who experienced slavery firsthand, chose to keep her head down and work hard rather than stir up trouble.
Aunt Tempy, who deeply internalized society’s hatred and disgust for Black people, chose to erase as much of her blackness as she could in an attempt to be accepted into white society with all its attendant privileges.
Aunt Harriett, who resented the limited and unappealing opportunities left open to Black people, chose to reject it all and choose a life of indulgence: drinking, smoking, casual sex, and earning a living from singing and dancing — work that was considered just a step away from prostitution in that time period.
Finally, Sandy’s mother, Anjee, who seems to just avoid asking the question in order to avoid having to answer it, chose to just focus on getting by from one day to the next, without giving thought to the future or the bigger picture.
Sandy contemplates all of these approaches as he grows up and tries to figure out what kind of a man he wants to be and what he is going to do with his life. The ending, though perfumed with optimism, still leaves one hurting to know that all the suffering and prejudice Sandy encountered in early 20th century America are still present in the lives of the young Black people growing up over 100 years later. This exact story, this exact struggle could be set in today’s America with little to no changes.
Yet, somehow, in spite of this tragedy, Hughes manages to end his story, not with hurt and futility, but with a deep, swelling pride in the enduring beauty of Black culture and the enduring strength of the Black community.
“That must be the reason, thought Sandy, why poverty-stricken old Negroes like Uncle Dan Givens lived so long — because to them, no matter how hard life might be, it was not without laughter.”