The Genius of Langston Hughes II

In my last entry I quoted from “Home” a story by Langston Hughes included in his collection The Ways of White Folks, which, I’m suggesting, is the best short story in the English language.

The story is about a black violinist named Roy who travels around Europe in the 1930s and returns to his home in Missouri because he thinks he is dying and he wants to see his mother.

Last time I cited a moving passage about all the poverty and starvation Roy had seen in Vienna and Berlin while there were people spending money on champagne and caviar in the nighclubs where his orchestra played.

But the story is chiefly about his return to Missouri. The loafers on the train platform when he arrives notice the strange stickers and tags on his luggage that they can’t read.

“The eyes of the white men about the station were not kind. He heard some one mutter, ‘Nigger.’ His skin burned. For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his color. He was home.”

It’s hard to sum this story up, because it’s so brilliantly written, but here goes: Roy sees his mom and gives a benefit performance at her church “for the glory of God.” Many white people come, including a teacher from the white high school.

She invites Roy to perform for her students. “The students went home that afternoon and told their parents that a dressed-up nigger had come to school with a violin and played a lot of funny pieces that only Miss Reese liked. They went on to say that Miss Reese had grinned all over herself and cried, ‘Wonderful!’ And had even bowed to the nigger when he went out.”

Roy is used to playing in clubs until the wee hours of the morning, so he can’t sleep and goes out for a walk. He meets Miss Reese in the street and she says, “Good evening.”

“Roy started, bowed, nodded, ‘Good evening, Miss Reese,’ and was glad to see her. Forgetting that he wasn’t in Europe, he took off his hat and his gloves and held out his hand to this lady who understood music.

“They smiled at each other, the sick young colored man and the aging music teacher in the light of the main street. Then she asked him if he was still working on the Sarasate [a piece of music].

“‘Yes,’ Roy said. ‘It’s lovely.’

“‘And have you heard that marvellous Heifetz record of it?’ Miss Reese inquired.

“Roy opened his mouth to reply when he saw the woman’s face suddenly grow pale with horror. Before he could turn around to learn what her eyes had seen, he felt a fist like a ton of bricks strike his jaw. There was a flash of lightning in his brain as his head hit the edge of the plate glass window of the drug store.

“Miss Reese screamed. The sidewalk filled with white young ruffians with red-necks, open sweaters, and fists doubled up to strike. The movies had just let out and the crowd, passing by and seeing, objected to a Negro talking to a white woman – insulting a white woman – attacking a WHITE woman – RAPING A WHITE WOMAN.

“They saw Roy remove his gloves and bow. When Miss Reese screamed after Roy had been struck, they were sure he had been making love to her. And before the story got beyond the rim of the crowd, Roy had been trying to rape her, right there on the main street in front of the brightly-lighted windows of the drug store. Yes, he did, too! Yes sir!

“So they knocked Roy down. They trampled on his hat and cane and gloves as a dozen men tried to get to him to pick him up – so some one else could have the pleasure of knocking him down again. They struggled over the privilege of knocking him down.

“Roy looked up from the sidewalk at the white mob around him. His mouth was full of blood and his eyes burned. His clothes were dirty. He wondered why Miss Reese had stopped to ask him about Sarasate. He knew he would never get home to his mother now.

“Some one jerked him to his feet. Some one spat in his face. (It looked like his old playmate, Charlie Mumford.) Somebody cussed him for being a nigger and another kicked him from behind.

“And all the men and boys in the lighted street began to yell and scream like mad people and to snarl like dogs, and to pull at the little Negro in spats they were dragging through the town towards the woods…”

Okay so I’ve given away the ending. Go read the story anyway and all the other great stories in this book.