76 pages 2 hours read

Langston Hughes

Not Without Laughter

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1930

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1930, near the end of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter is a coming-of-age narrative about James "Sandy" Rogers, an African-American boy from the small Kansas town of Stanton. Loosely based on Hughes's own childhood in Kansas, the novel traces the challenges of African-American life in the Midwest during the years leading up to World War I.

The novel opens with a cyclone that rips the porch from the house of Hager Williams, Sandy's grandmother. The family survives the cyclone, but the years that follow widen the fractures in the family until it shatters. Harriet, Hager's youngest, rejects Hager's Christianity, insists on quitting school and her job, sneaks into town, and stays out all night.

Meanwhile, Annjee, another of Hager's daughters and Sandy's mother, struggles with her job as a domestic and dreams of following her frequently absent husband, Jimboy, as he goes from place to place in search of work and variety. Jimboy finally writes from Kansas City to tell them he is coming home after injuring his back.

Although Annjee, Harriet, and Sandy are excited about his return, Hager is not since she considers him a lazy man who does little to support her daughter and grandson. When Jimboy returns, however, he brings much needed laughter, the blues that he plays on the guitar, and popular dances of the day. Although Hager sees his music and dancing as sinful, Harriet—who has a talent for dancing and the blues Jimboy has taught her—enjoys the evenings when Jimboy entertains the entire neighborhood.

Sandy gets his first glimpse of the trials African Americans face when he watches his mother's employer berate her in front of him. An evening listening to adults and family talk about their experiences with racism gives Sandy food for thought. Harriet in particular hates whites because of their racism.

Harriet's desire for change puts her in direct conflict with Hager after she stays out all night with her boyfriend and Sandy, who accompanied her because no one else was at home to watch him. Hager whips her with switches when she arrives home the next morning. When a traveling carnival comes to town, Harriet pawns a watch Hager gave her and takes a job as a carnival performer.

Sandy, meanwhile, learns a lesson about integrity when he spends his church offering on candy and is caught in a lie that earns him his first lecture ever from his father. As fall arrives, Sandy begins fifth grade, where he is forced to sit in the back row away from the white children. He is also disappointed when he comes home one day and discovers that his father has left without saying goodbye.

Life gets even more difficult when a brutal winter arrives, and his mother falls ill with the flu. With Hager the only working adult and a note from Harriet asking for money to help her come home, Sandy doesn't receive a sled he had hoped for. He realizes his family is poor, whites have more economic advantages, and Santa Claus doesn't exist.

Harriet returns. While she doesn’t share how she survived, her heavy make-up and cheap perfume worry the family. She moves into the bad part of town with a friend. Annjee saves up enough money to join Jimboy in Detroit and leaves Sandy behind with Hager, who takes advantage of the time to share stories of slavery and to teach Sandy that love, rather than bitterness, is the proper response to racism.

As a growing boy, however, Sandy is learning other lessons. He learns how to manage the give and take of conversation between men in his job in a barbershop, has his first real encounter with racism when he and the other African-American children are denied entrance to a new amusement park, and is forced to comfort Hager when Harriet and her friend are arrested for prostitution. Sandy works for a time in a hotel but seeing unclothed white women and being attacked by a racist Southern guest force him to quit the job.

Disaster strikes when Hager dies from overwork. Sandy moves in with Tempy, another of Hager's daughters and an affluent woman who is ashamed of her working-class roots. Tempy teaches Sandy Standard English, pushes him to choose a more challenging curriculum at high school, and keeps a well-stocked library that allows Sandy to read great literature, including the writings of W.E.B. DuBois. Sandy is obedient to her program for self-improvement until he falls in love. Her warning that his crush is promiscuous turns out to be true, and Sandy drifts away from Tempy's grand plans for him to become a credit to the race.

Annjee, now living in Chicago apart from Jimboy, who has enlisted to fight overseas in World War I, asks Sandy to come to the city to help her. Although Sandy has always dreamed of traveling to the city, the dirty reality of the city and his monotonous work as an elevator attendant convince him that he has to continue his education, although he is not sure how to do so without money. Annjee opposes his plan, but Sandy's dream is saved when Harriet, now a celebrated blues performer, comes to town and offers to support him. Sandy's character arc from poverty-stricken Kansas boy to a promising young man trying to make it in the big city is complete.

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