From The Ways of White Folks
Langston Hughes is so indelibly associated with the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s that many people forget he was born and raised in Missouri. This, one expects, would have given him a formative first-hand experience with the realities of racism in the American heartland. Not that racism was (or is) absent in New York City, but in Harlem Hughes found a community of African American writers and artists – among them Jean Toomer, George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larson, Claude McKay, Wallace Thurman, and W.E.B. Du Bois – that was flourishing in the early decades of the 20th century.
Elsewhere in the 1920s, especially in the South and what is now considered “flyover country,” conditions were not quite so congenial. Jim Crow was in effect, the Ku Klux Klan grew to nationwide prominence, and lynchings of Black Americans were distressingly common.
It is salutary to believe that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and ’70s created a more tolerant society, but the recent deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota, Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia – as well as the ensuing protests, some of them violent – have proved the racial cleavages that scar U.S. history are still very much present in the 21st century. The racism that was institutionalized from the nation’s founding in the practice of chattel slavery has continued unabated, occasionally retreating into the background, but flaring up again and again and again. It has been described, accurately, as America’s original sin.
This is why “Home,” a story Hughes first published in Esquire magazine in 1934, seems so relevant today. The story features Roy Williams, a Black violinist who has toured Europe, playing in Vienna and Berlin, before falling ill and returning to the U.S. The nature of Roy’s illness is unspecified, other than that it involves a persistent cough, hemorrhage, and serious weight loss. (One suspects some form of cancer, but Hughes leaves the exact nature of the disease unspoken.) Convinced he is going to die, Roy decides his last act will be to visit his mother in his hometown of Hopkinsville, Missouri.
Hopkinsville, as Roy is repeatedly reminded, is not Europe. On the continent, Roy was able to walk the streets without fear, even engaging in conversations with white people, shaking hands and embracing. He has a girlfriend in Paris to whom he remains faithful, repeatedly refusing the advances of women (including prostitutes) who jockey for his company in Vienna and Berlin. He studies under the best teachers and plays jazz to enthusiastic crowds.
“But the glittering curtains of Roy’s jazz were lined with death,” Hughes writes, in a moment of blatant foreshadowing. The immediate reference here is to the poverty and suffering Roy witnesses in interwar Vienna, though it is impossible not to read the sentence with a sense of hideous foreboding about the story’s trajectory once the musician returns to the U.S.
Indeed, what he finds in his homeland, in contrast to relatively tolerant Europe, is suspicion, envy, and outright hatred. He arrives in New York “on the day that Hoover drove the veterans out of Washington” – a reference to the Bonus Army protests of First World War veterans who were jobless during the Great Depression – and is immediately accosted by his old artist friends who are down on their luck and want a handout from the well-dressed world traveller. “Rotten everywhere,” Roy thinks to himself. “I want to go home.”
But home will not prove the sanctuary he expects. After mounting a concert at a local church in his hometown (the whites pay twice as much as the Blacks and get to sit up front), he is talked into appearing at a local high school by one of the teachers, an “old maid musicianer” named Miss Reese. The teacher caught Roy’s eye at the concert as a result of her attentiveness; he becomes convinced that she “understands music.” Her students are less than impressed, telling their parents that a “dressed-up” Black man played “a lot of funny pieces that nobody but Miss Reese liked.”
White high school students being dismissive of the music of Bach and Mozart is one thing, but when a group of white cinema-goers spots Roy talking to Miss Reese outside the local pharmacy after dark, things turn ugly. The group, who assume that Roy is trying to rape the schoolteacher, beat him, strip him naked, drag him to a nearby tree and string him up.
Hughes refuses to sugar-coat the racist elements in his story: the language he employs is harsh and offensive and has the power to instill great discomfort in a reader. The first words Roy hears when he steps off the train in Hopkinsville comprise a hateful racist insult. When he runs into an old bandmate, a white man named Charlie Mumford (whom Roy will later suspect is the man in the crowd of vigilantes who spits on him), he tells him he has come home to visit his mother. “I hope she’s gladder to see yuh than we are,” another white voice drawls.
If the racial language in the story is straightforward and unadorned, the same cannot be said for the church concert. Narrated from Roy’s perspective onstage, this section of the story is told in free-flowing rhythms that mirror the jazz and bebop inflections of Hughes’s poetry: “Steady, Roy! It’s hot in this crowded church, and you’re sick as hell. … This, the dream and the dreamer, wandering in the desert from Hopkinsville to Vienna in love with a streetwalker named Music. … Listen, you bitch, I want you to be as beautiful as the moon in the night on the edge of the Missouri hills. I’ll make you beautiful.”
Hughes marries the form and content in his story – the concert section is bouncy and energetic, propelled forward on waves of rhythmic prose that elsewhere give way to forthright, unadorned language and scenes that unfold in a naturalistic manner. The scenes in the church come closer to impressionism, giving precedence to the artistic talent that has carried Roy from the U.S. across Europe.
Throughout the story, Hughes interrogates the notion of home – as sanctuary, as comfort, as birthplace. Roy returns to his hometown after getting sick because he presumes it will be a welcoming place and that the bosom of his family might provide a refuge in his final days. It does not occur to him that the racism that infects the town might render home itself dangerous, a place of violence and premature death.
This is the irony of Hughes’s story, and it is entirely recognizable in America close to ninety years later. The country in which Roy was born is not a sanctuary for him, it is a place of peril and pain, inflicted by his fellow countrymen who despise him for no reason other than the systemic and institutionalized hatred they have grown up with. When the white crowd first attacks Roy, Miss Reese screams in horror; the crowd assumes her scream is proof of Roy’s intention to rape her (the white woman’s virtue threatened by the unrestrained Black male libido being one of the most pernicious racist tropes in American history) and intensify their assault.
There is a moment in this all-too-contemporary story that hits closer to the bone than any other. After disembarking from the train at Hopkinsville, Roy is the focus of numerous verbal attacks, of the kind he had not been subjected to in cosmopolitan Europe. It is here that Hughes twists the knife in his reader’s side with a blazingly ironic statement about the nature of American society and its attendant history of violence and racial animosity. “The eyes of the white men about the station were not kind. He heard someone mutter, ‘N*****.’ His skin burned. For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his colour. He was home.”