49 pages 1 hour read

Langston Hughes

The Ways of White Folks

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1934

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1934, The Ways of White Folks is Langston Hughes’s collection of 14 short stories focusing on race relations in the United States. With somber tales of struggle and violence, as well as moments of irony and humor, the collection addresses racism, economic disparity, and hope. This study guide quotes and obscures Hughes’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

“Cora Unashamed” tells the story of Cora Jenkins, who works as a maid for a cruel White family. Cora helps raise her employer’s daughter, Jessie, and the two come to love each other. Jessie gets pregnant out of wedlock and dies following a procedure to terminate her pregnancy. Cora screams and mourns at the funeral, causing a scene. After Cora is taken out of the ceremony, she leaves and never returns to work for the White family. In “Slave on the Block,” two rich White artists in New York, Michael and Anne Carraway, hire a young Black man, Luther, to work in their home. Anne has Luther pose for a painting about slavery. Luther tires of the Carraways’ requests and starts acting out. When he talks back to Michael’s mother, Michael uses a racist slur and tells Luther to leave, and Luther goes.

“Home” concerns Roy Williams, a musician returning to the South after being in Europe. Roy bonds with a music teacher in the town, and when the two are seen talking on the street, an angry mob of townspeople accuses Roy of attacking her. They beat Roy and hang him from a tree. “Passing” is a letter from a son to his mother. The son, Jack, is biracial and passes for White, whereas his mother is Black. Jack apologizes for having ignored his mother on the street. Even though she told him to embrace his ability to pass for White, rejecting his family still pains him.

“A Good Job Done” finds an unnamed narrator working for a womanizing alcoholic, Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd falls in love with a Black woman, but she rejects him. She leaves, and Mr. Lloyd spirals into insanity. “Rejuvenation Through Joy” details the mishaps of Eugene Leche, a con man. Eugene opens a Colony of Joy where he commodifies Black music to swindle rich people. The colony fails, and Eugene is exposed as a person of color passing for a White man.

“The Blues I’m Playing” tells the story of Oceola Jones, a talented musician who accepts the patronage of Mrs. Ellsworth. Oceola is pressured to choose art above all else, but she chooses the love of a man, Pete, and leaves the security of Mrs. Ellsworth’s patronage. “Red-Headed Baby” focuses on Clarence, a racist and crude sailor. Clarence visits a Black woman he slept with and discovers he has a three-year-old biracial son who is also deaf. Unable to accept the situation, Clarence leaves.

“Poor Little Black Fellow” finds Arnie, a Black orphan, being raised by the White Pemberton family. Everyone in Arnie’s town is overly nice to him because he’s the only Black person there, but Arnie still feels isolated and alone. On a trip to Paris, Arnie decides to stay in Europe. In “Little Dog,” the lonely Miss Briggs buys a dog. She asks her apartment’s janitor, a Black man named Joe, to deliver her meat. Joe does and is kind and polite to Miss Briggs, but she gets anxious around him. Unable to grapple with her emotions, Miss Briggs moves away.

“Berry” focuses on Millberry Jones, an uneducated Black youth who finds work at a sanatorium for disabled children. Berry bonds with the children but is treated poorly by the staff. When a child falls from his wheelchair, Berry is blamed and is forced to leave the sanatorium. “Mother and Child” revolves around a group of women who talk about a White woman and a Black man in town who had a baby, even though the woman is married. The affair has caused racial tensions in the town, and the women gossip over what might happen.

In “One Christmas Eve” Arcie takes her young son, Joe, Christmas shopping. Joe sneaks into a theater to see Santa Claus, even though it is only meant for White people. Santa Claus scares Joe, and he runs out. Arcie scolds her son and assures him that the man he saw wasn’t Santa; it was just an old White man. “Father and Son” is the story of Colonel Tom Norwood, his Black mistress, and their son, Bert. The Colonel can’t accept Bert as his son, and tension between them builds. The Colonel threatens to shoot Bert for acting out in town, but Bert strangles his father first. A mob closes in on Bert, and he shoots himself before they can kill him. Unsatisfied, the mob kills Bert’s older brother and hangs them both. 

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