I’ve been reading The Ways of White Folks, a collection of short stories by Langston Hughes. They’re all great, but I think the one entitled “Home” may just be the best short story in the English language. I think every high school student in America should be obliged to read it.
Set in the 1930s, it starts with a description of Roy Williams, a black violinist who has been living in Europe for many years but has become ill and has come home to Missouri.
“Roy had been away seven or eight years, wandering the world. He came back very well dressed, but awfully thin. He wasn’t well.
“It was this illness that had made Roy come home, really. He had a feeling that he was going to die and he wanted to see his mother again.
“This feeling about death had been coming over him gradually for two or three years now. It seemed to him that it must have started in Vienna, that gay but dying city where so many people were hungry, and yet some still had money to buy champagne and caviar and women in the night-clubs where Roy’s orchestra played.
“But the glittering curtains of Roy’s jazz were lined with death. It made him sick to see people fainting in the streets of Vienna from hunger, while others stuffed themselves with wine and food. And it made him sad to refuse the young white women trailing behind him when he came home from work late at night, offering their bodies for a little money to buy something to eat…
“‘Folks catch hell in Europe,’ Roy thought. ‘I never saw people as hungry as this, not even Negroes at home.’
“But it was even worse when the orchestra moved back to Berlin. Behind the aparent solidity of that great city behind doors where tourists never passed, hunger and pain were beyond understanding. And the police were beating people who protested, or stole, or begged.
“Yet in the cabaret where Roy played, crowds of folks still spent good gold. They laughed and danced every night and didn’t give a damn about the children sleeping in doorways outside, or the men who built houses of packing boxes, or the women who walked the streets to pick up trade.”
Tomorrow, if you’re good, I’ll tell you what happened to Roy when he got home to the “Land of the Free.”