Not Without Laughter Summary

Langston Hughes

Not Without Laughter

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Not Without Laughter Summary

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American author Langston Hughes is best known for his poetry and essays, but in 1930, he also published his first novel, Not Without Laughter, to wide acclaim. The semi-autobiographical novel follows an African-American family in 1910 Kansas, the same state that Hughes grew up in. Not Without Laughter is notable for being the first work by an African-American author that showcased working class, African-Americans in the countryside.

The third person novel is character driven, and several critics have discussed its lack of solid storyline. Not Without Laughter revolves around the growth from childhood to young adulthood of Sandy Rogers, a kind, adventurous, and intellectually curious boy. The novel’s themes include the importance of faith and family in hard times.

The novel opens with an African-American family preparing for an approaching hurricane. Sandy’s grandmother, whom he refers to as Aunt Hager, is trying to get everyone into the cellar. Along with Sandy, this includes Annjee, Sandy’s frequently feeble mother.

The storm passes, and the family resurfaces. After surveying the damage, Aunt Hager prays to God,thankful the damage was not worse. As a trained nurse, she helps patch up some of her family’s wounds.

The family talks to other families equally dismayed by the storm. They hear that a wealthy white couple, the Gavitts, were killed in the storm.

Sandy’s father, Jimboy, is often absent from Sandy’s life. In fact, Jimboy has not written to Annjee in three weeks — a very long time for the family. Aunt Hager, best known for her clear-sightedness and practicality, ridicules Jimboy as being worthless. Aunt Hager is a deeply religious woman who serves as the family’s matriarch. But Annjee and Sandy cannot deny their love for the imperfect character of Jimboy.

Sandy’s Aunt Tempy has married into the local high society. Hughes grew up in such a society, and he documents with great precision the habits of this upper black class that in many ways mimicked the cruel systems of relations buttressed by upper white society. Tempy also wants nothing to do with her poor upbringing.

Sandy’s other aunt, Harriett, is equally unreliable. She argues frequently with her mother over the strict teachings of the bible; Harriett thinks the teachings make black people boring and only more subservient towards white people. She does not believe white people should be prayed for, and she is hurt and indignant over the daily racism she experienced in school and as a waitress. After fighting with Aunt Hager, she leaves; months later, Aunt Hager sees Harriett’s name in the paper as a criminal for offering sexual services. Hager is horrified that her daughter is working as a prostitute. But like Aunt Tempy, Harriett acts as if she wants nothing to do with Sandy or Aunt Hager.

Through Sandy’s childhood, the family is very poor. When Christmas comes, they cannot even afford icing for the cake. Still, the family takes pleasure in being together and frequently finds stories to laugh over. Sandy does get a job at a young age, despite Hagar’s wishes, because the family needs the money; he works as a bellboy at Drummer’s Hotel.

One day, Annjee leaves Sandy to go live with Jimboy in Detroit.

As Sandy talks more with Aunt Hager and overhears her conversations with other people, he finds that she believes oppression is best endured by love, prayer, and forgiveness; she is forgiving of a racist society that systematically oppresses her family, even though she was a slave a young child.

Aunt Hager fights each day to so that Sandy can have a proper life: she wants him to stay in school and to find real employment so that one day he can become a “great man.”

Aunt Hager dies. The entire community shows up for the funeral, and the paper (in a patronizing tone) notes that Hager was well-liked by white families.

Annjee writes that she wants Sandy to live with her and Jimboy in Detroit, but she simply lacks the money to support him in Michigan. Instead, Sandy goes to live with his snooty Aunt Tempy. Though Aunt Tempy is nowhere as nurturing or admirable as Aunt Hager, she does provide Sandy a stable place to grow up. In her house, he has access to hundreds of books. He quickly gets into the habit of reading constantly. The treatises, autobiographies, and novels he encounters challenge his thinking on religion and “the black question.” The book delves into how these books shaped his future self.

Around the time of WWI, Annjee has saved enough money to support her son; she has since moved to Chicago. He moves to Michigan. He does not get closer to his father as Jimboy enlisted with the military and was sent to Europe.

Sandy is eager to find work, and with the help of Annjee, finds employment as a bellboy. He is happy enough in the position, but views the position as a means to a further education. His mother encourages him to give up hopes of a better education, and focus his energies on making a living. For sometime, Sandy consents.

One day, word gets out that Aunt Harriett has stopped working as a prostitute and is now a well-regarded blues singer. She’s actually famous with a sizeable income of her own.

Anjee and Sandy venture to meet her while she’s in Chicago performing a few shows. During their discussion, Sandy admits that he will not be pursuing an education. Harriett is outraged, and demands to know why. Annjee admits that she told him to focus on making money; she says they cannot possibly afford college at the moment anyway. Harriett reminds Annjee of all the hopes Aunt Hager had placed in Sandy. Eventually, Annjee agrees to no longer interfere with Sandy’s educational hopes. Once she accepts this situation, Harriett even agrees to pay the entirety of Sandy’s tuition.