Nothing but Love

The Black Voices Book Club met on March 21 at 7:00 pm for a lively discussion of the Langston Hughes’ novel Not Without Laughter published in 1930. Please join us on Monday, April 18, at 7 p.m. for our next discussion. You may check out copies of the book, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu at the Shepherd Park Library.

Please enjoy the following review of Not Without Laugher written by book club member, Robin Friedman.

"There ain't no room in this world fo' nothing' but love, Sandy chile. That's all they's room fo' -- nothin' but love."

In the above passage, Aunt Hager Williams gives her thoughts on the slavery she experienced in her youth to her young grandson, Sandy (James) Williams, in the climactic chapter of Langston Hughes' remarkable coming-of age novel Not Without Laughter (1930). The novel offers a picture of African-American life in a fictitious Kansas town, modeled on Lawrence, beginning in about 1911 and concluding with the end of WWI in 1918. Nothing but Love is a fitting summation of the book as a whole.

Hughes' partially autobiographical novel tells the story of young Sandy Williams between the ages of 9 and 16, and Sandy and his family are the main characters. The boy's aging grandmother, Hager, is the titular head of the family and inspires the boy with her ambitions for him to make something of his life. She earns money for the family by washing clothes for white people. Hagar's daughter and Sandy's mother, Anjee, works as a domestic for a demanding white family. She is married to Jimboy, an itinerant guitarist and singer who spends little time at home but rather wanders throughout the country looking for work. Hager has two other daughters. Tempy Siles has made a successful marriage, moved into the black middle class, and tends to look down upon the rest of the family. The youngest daughter, Harriet, has a restless streak. She dislikes white people and religion and spends a great deal of time singing and dancing in disreputable parts of the town. After a time as a prostitute, she succeeds as a blues singer.

The novel tells the story of how Sandy learns from his family and largely from other African- American people in the town and, in the final scenes of the book, in Chicago. The book and its plot begin slowly, but I soon was engaged with the lives of the characters. Hughes gives a rare realistic and enthusiastic look at African-American life during the early 20th century in its variety, difficulty and hope. There is, of course, great emphasis on the pervasive discrimination African- Americans suffered in the American Midwest, as most of the institutions in Kansas enforced rigid segregation and discrimination, and most of the whites had racist attitudes. But there was much hope and strength in the African-American community as well. Sandy receives his greatest inspiration from the strong Aunt Hager, who speaks in dialect, as do many of the characters.  She is deeply religious, and wants Sandy to make a contribution to uplift the race. Hager is an admirer of Booker Washington. Sandy is exposed to the world of learning from Tempy, who raises the boy after Anjee leaves the family to live with her wandering husband and after Hager dies. Tempy is an admirer of DuBois, but she presses Sandy in the direction of rejecting the African-American culture, which the young boy and Hughes are unwilling to do.

Besides the emphasis on educational uplift, there is much in Sandy's world of guitar playing, music, the blues and poetry, as songs such as "St. Louis Blues," "Easy Rider," "John Henry" and many more get a great deal of attention and quotation. The book is in the language of poetry and dialect. Scenes take place in dance halls, barber shops, carnivals and pool halls, as well as in schools, churches and the home. The town "bottoms"--the home of prostitutes and gamblers--is described as the only location in the community that is free from race discrimination. The book describes the importance, and frequent repression of sexuality, in the budding awareness of Sandy, and in the experiences of the other characters. Hughes offers a complex and varied perspective on African-American life. He emphasizes the importance of knowledge and empowerment. He also treasures the distinctive features of African-American life in its poetry, dance, music and emphasis on family. He suggests to me that African-Americans can develop their own culture without merely adopting that of white America. The overall tone is one of laughter, love and forgiveness.

Hughes' novel won the Harmon Gold Medal in 1930, a prize awarded between 1925 and 1930 for high achievement in African-American art and literature. The novel is not as well known today as it deserves to be. It is a precious story of African-American life and of growing up.

                                                                                                                         --by Robin Friedman