Retro Review: The Ways of Folks by Langston Hughes White

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born James Mercer Langston Hughes in Joplin, Missouri. He was a prolific writer, poet, playwright, author and activist. As a young man, Langston led a complex and adventurous life both in the United State and abroad, which undoubtedly influenced his writing style and his outpouring of work.  He was a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, a collective of African-American writers, artists, performers, and activists, which included Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Robeson, Alan Locke, Claude Toomer, Josephine Baker, and Louis Armstrong.

Intrigued by both the Harlem Renaissance and its key players, I found myself drawn to Hughes collection of short stories The Way of White Folks. And though it was published in 1934, I find it immensely timely in 2017.

Langston’s stories fully express the lives of black people, especially when dealing with white people, during the 1920s and ‘30s, even those so-called good liberal white people who only seemed to be on the side of “colored people.” These stories are at turns sad and humorous, and not one of them rings a false note.

The Way of White Folks consists of 14 powerful short stories. It opens with “Cora Unashamed.” Cora of the title is Cora Jenkins who lives in small town called Melton. She is considered a “Negress,” that is a polite, unassuming, and quiet colored lady. She works for the Studevants, who sadly to say, don’t treat her in a favorable manner. And Cora accepts this because due to her race and her sex, she doesn’t have much power.

Cora does everything for the Studevants. She cleans cooks, runs errands and takes care of the children. But to the Studevants, Cora is just a servant, nothing more. She should be grateful for the job.

But she is so much more than a servant. She is quietly strong. She once had a passionate love affair. And as the “Cora Unashamed” unfolds proves to be far more bold and passionate than she lets on unleashing a very surprising and interesting dénouement.

In “Home,” the protagonist, Roy Williams  goes back to his home in the United States after many years of making a living as a jazz musician, traveling all over Europe. Roy contemplates how his experiences in both cultures as a black man are similar and different.

The Colony, a collective of black artists and intellectuals, is splendidly examined in the chapter called, “Rejuvenation of Joy.” These talented people convey both the good and bad of The Colony and what they face when not in their protective and inspiring community of shared experiences.

The final chapter “Father and Son” tells the tale of Colonel Thomas Norwood’s relationship with his black mistress Coralee Lewis and their biracial children. Colonel Norward takes advantage but doesn’t offer advantage to these children. And his attitude is best summed up in the dejected and heartbreaking words of his son, Bert.

“Oh, but I’m not a nigger, Colonel Norwood. I’m your son.”

Although I finished this book several days ago, I still feel them greatly. I have very little in common with Langston Hughes. I am a privileged white woman born and raised after the age of Jim Crow. Yet, I’d like to think it’s my deep well of empathy that made me love this book, but I also grew up in a small town where people still harbor the racist ideas of the white folks in this collection. When it comes to works of culture and art, we don’t only see them as they are; we also see them as we are.

But for the most part, the reason why The Way of White Folks cuts so deep is due to the book itself, and Langston’s gifted, soulful way with the English language. It is a book that will take a figurative spot within my soul, and one I can truly say is placed on my book self.

Retro Review: Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns (Introduction by Emily Gould)

961247_1_12916-woolworths.png_standardPublished in 1950 Barbara Comyn’s slim novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, has been re-discovered for a modern audience. Emily Gould’s name may sound familiar to some of my readers. She wrote the novel Friendship, which I reviewed in 2014. Gould wrote the introduction to Comyn’s novel, and offers some interesting insight to not only Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s but Barbara Comyn’s life as well. Here is my review. Enjoy!

Sophia Fairclough is 21, and struggling artist in 1930s pre-war London. She meets, Charles, another young artist while on the train and they hastily marry, thinking they will live a somewhat glamorous life of bohemians while making money painting. However, like the United States, Great Britain is also in the grips of the Depression. And Sophia and Charles; bohemian glamorous life is one of extreme poverty and struggle. Charles refuses to get a proper job, thinking it will make him a “sell-out,” so it is up to the more practical Sophia to get a job working as a figure model for art classes. Still the few pounds and pence Sophia makes in no way stretches far enough to take care of her and her husband and their household expenses.

Things become even more problematic when Sophia becomes pregnant with their son, Sandro. Sophia’s quite naïve when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth (she is completely clueless that she is in labor when her water breaks), and even more clueless when it comes to the complexity of raising a child. Still, her fierce love of Sandro inspires her to work her hardest to support and raise him, even if he doesn’t have the basic necessities modern parents take for granted.

Now, despite having not only a wife and a young child, Charles refuses to get a proper job. So it is still up to Sophia to bring in the money. Even on his best days, Charles sees Sandro as a burden and as a distraction. An ideal, father, he is not. And to be honest, Charles is not an ideal person. In the modern sense, he is merely a hipster douchebro.

Sophia eventually has an affair with an older man, a local art critic. This affair is a pleasant distraction from the bleakness of her marriage and her daily life. She soon falls pregnant again. You’ll have to read the book to find out what happens with that pregnancy.

Though naïve, uneducated and a bit passive, Sophia knows in her heart she (and Sandro) deserve much better. She makes a decision, that may make or break her, but in a time where women, especially poor women, had so few options, Sophia knows has to both survive and thrive. And she through sheer tenacity, a strong work ethic, and a certain weathered optimism, does both.

Did I like Our Spoons Came From Woolworths? Yes, I did. Now I usually detest authors who tell rather than show. But at times, this slim volume, came across like a very personal diary and gathering of the day-to-day details of her life. What she lacks in money, she sure makes up in pluck. And you can’t help but root for her. Sophia sees bright shiny yellow in a world of gritty, grimy grayness of her surroundings.

The narrative of this book is written in a clearly-stated chatty style. It is not pretentious or filled-with navel-gazing self-indulgence that seems to affect moneyed ladies and their high class problems (Eat, Pray, Love—I’m looking in your direction). It is Sophia’s life in particular difficult part in her young years, and never is she mawkish or sentimental. As for lovers of period-based literature, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths will probably appeal to people whose idea of British melodrama is more Call the Midwife than Downton Abbey or Mr. Selfridge.