A vivid and joyous rendering of African American life in the early years of the 20th century.
Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967) was a much acclaimed African-American poet, playwright and columnist. His first novel, Not Without Laughter (1930), is set in the town of Stanton, Kansas. A coming of age story, the novel centres around the young boy, Sandy, as he grows to young adulthood.
The action of the story takes place in the 1910s. Sandy is being raised by his grandmother, Aunt Hager. She is a kind, hardworking, God fearing woman, the backbone of her family. She has three daughters. Annjee, Sandy’s mother, works a thankless and humiliating job as a housekeeper for a white woman, Mrs Rice. Anjee is married to Jimboy, an itinerant worker and guitar player who is not the most responsible of fathers. Aunt Tempy, the second daughter, has married well to a man with a regular job. She’s often harsh and critical of Black folks, especially their popular culture, and is determined to gain acceptance from whites, even if it means being like them. Lastly there is Harriet, the youngest. She has fire in the belly and deeply resents her treatment by white society. She stays out late, runs away from home and makes a living for herself as a singer.
Through the portraits of these four Black women – Aunt Hager, Annjee, Aunt Tempy and Aunt Harriet – the reader is shown the breadth of the African American experience, with all its frustrations, heartaches and contradictions. People of colour try to gain acceptance from whites by playing to their rules, but of course they can never win. The game is stacked against them. Then there are those that resist, and believe in fighting, like Aunt Harriet. Yet their position is precarious.
Not Without Laughter is a magical reading experience. Its style and rhythm is full of music, joy, sorrow, laughter and heartache. Langston Hughes is a master of dialogue, vividly bringing his characters to life. The beauty of African American speech infuses every page; it’s a book that sings. While there is much struggle and hardship, there is also joy and hope, hope for a better future.
Sandy grows to be a young teenager and is faced with a choice, whether to pursue an education or stay in a dead end job. The strong women that have raised him and that dominate this novel – his mother, grandmother and aunts – their voices in the end guide him to the right decision.
Not Without Laughter is a magnificent novel, a joy to read and an education in how American people of colour lived a century ago, shortly after the end of slavery.
Not Without Laughter, by Langston Hughes. Published by Penguin. RRP: $27.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books