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Not Without Laughter Study Guide Essay

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BookRags Literature Study Guide

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

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The following sections of this BookRags Literature Study Guide is offprint from Gale's For Students Series: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Works: Introduction, Author Biography, Plot Summary, Characters, Themes, Style, Historical Context, Critical Overview, Criticism and Critical Essays, Media Adaptations, Topics for Further Study, Compare & Contrast, What Do I Read Next?, For Further Study, and Sources.

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The following sections, if they exist, are offprint from Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: "Social Concerns", "Thematic Overview", "Techniques", "Literary Precedents", "Key Questions", "Related Titles", "Adaptations", "Related Web Sites". (c)1994-2005, by Walton Beacham.

The following sections, if they exist, are offprint from Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults: "About the Author", "Overview", "Setting", "Literary Qualities", "Social Sensitivity", "Topics for Discussion", "Ideas for Reports and Papers". (c)1994-2005, by Walton Beacham.

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Plot Summary

In Not without Laughter, Langston Hughes, the great early twentieth century American novelist, poet and playwright, presents the story of Sandy Rogers, a young black boy in the early 1900s growing up in the Midwest. Hughes aims to tell the story of black American life in the mid-west within two generations following slavery. He sets the story in Stanton, Kansas and focuses on the relations between blacks and whites, the tensions between different philosophies of living with oppression, the subtle and not-so-subtle racist social norms of Midwestern white society, poverty, religion and the possibility of a black person improving his or her position within a white society.

Sandy is a young boy when the story begins. He lives with his mother, Annjee, his aunt Harriet and his grandmother Aunt Hager. His father, Jimboy, travels the country working odd jobs and rarely writing home. His other aunt, Tempy, has married into black high-society that attempts to imitate whites to becomes acceptable to white society. In part due to a lack of education and in part due to direct discrimination against blacks, Sandy's family is very poor.

Aunt Hager is the family matriarch. She is a seriously religious Christian who tries to keep the family in church and well-behaved. She remembers being a slave as a little girl, but her general attitude towards white society is that oppressed is to be endured with love for the neighbor and prayer and forgiveness for the oppressor. She is also largely responsible for raising Sandy, particularly after Annjee leaves to be with Jimboy. Sandy's Aunt Harriett leaves home after a conflict with Aunt Hager and becomes a prostitute, while Tempy will hardly give her family the time of day. Aunt Hager is determined to raise Sandy right and keeps him employed and in school. She pushes Sandy to dream big for himself despite the odds against him and wants him to become a "great man".

When Aunt Hager dies, Annjee cannot afford to move Sandy to Detroit, where she and Jimboy live at the time, so Sandy goes to live with his Aunt Tempy. Tempy is embarrassed by her lower-class black past and has removed all of her "dialect" and goes to the Episcopal Church with her husband. She discourages Sandy from getting in trouble and keeps him in high school. The large number of books in her house gives Sandy the opportunity to read, and he quickly acquires a habit of constantly reading. The books he reads expand his mind and lead him to ask big questions about religion, morality and race relations.

Eventually Annjee saves up enough money to send for Sandy; Jimboy has gone to Europe in World War I and Annjee has found Sandy a job as a bell-boy. Sandy saves up money to continue his education, but Annjee wants him to keep his job as a bell-boy and make a living. About that time, Harriett has made her way out of darker places and has utilized her natural beauty and singing talent to become a regional blues singing star. When Sandy and Annjee go to see her in Chicago, Harriett berates Annjee for discouraging Sandy's education and reminds her of Aunt Hager's dreams for him. When Annjee relents, Harriett commits to funding Sandy's education.

Chapters 1-3, Storm, Conversation, Jimboy's Letter Summary and Analysis

"Storm" introduces Aunt Hager and her grandson Sandy preparing for a cyclone that is hitting their neighborhood. At the beginning of the story, Aunt Hager is desperately trying to get Sandy and herself into her cellar and get the door shut. When the storm passes, her house is gone, but she and her neighbor thank God things weren't worse. After meeting with a few more people in town, they hear that two rich white people in the neighborhood, the Gavitts, had been killed. Aunt Hager was a nurse whose services were needed so she tended to their family. Then Sandy's mother, Annjee, turns up to find Sandy and the three of them return home. Annjee's husband, Jimboy, hasn't written in three weeks. Aunt Hager thinks he's worthless, but Annjee and Sandy love him and Annjee prays for him to return.

In broad strokes, Storm concerns the normal reaction of townspeople to a cyclone in a black and white town. The black people immediately tend to the white people who are hysterical; the black people have to fend for themselves.

"Conversation" records a conversation between Aunt Hager and Sister Whiteside. They primarily talk about their children and grandchildren, about their lives and complain about how they never write. While they cover many details, one thing that comes out very clearly is the class structure in the town of Stanton where they live. First, they talk about Sandy and Sandy's friend Buster, who was half-black and probably had a white father. Of Hager's three daughters, Tempy, Annjee and Harriett, only Annjee sees Hager regularly.

Tempy and her husband have done well financially and have stopped hanging around lower-class blacks with darker skin. Instead, they quit the black Baptist church they went to and started going to the white Episcopalian church where "better" people go. In general, it becomes clear that Stanton largely has three social classes, whites, lower class and mostly darker blacks, and then lighter-skinned middle class blacks. Middle class blacks often seek to distinguish themselves from lower-class blacks to gain the approval of whites. They will do a lot for this form of social recognition, even ignoring their family and changing churches.

In "Jimboy's Letter", AnnJee receives a note from Jimboy saying that he'd been laying railroad in Kansas City and had hurt his back so he was coming home. Aunt Hager thought he was lying and thought he never did any work. But Annjee knows that he really was doing work. Jimboy was probably trying to outdo the Greeks in the work gang he was a part of when he hurt his back. In fact, while Jimboy could be irresponsible, he was a handsome man and always entertained so that no one was ever bored or lonely when he was around. He brought in some money, and he would have to do that outside of Stanton anyway.

In Stanton, there was almost no work for black people; immigrants came in and took away their jobs, and so a man could work in Stanton his whole life without saving enough money to retire and leave something behind (Aunt Hager's husband had suffered this fate). Throughout the chapter, it is quite clear that Annjee misses Jimboy but knows that he's a "travellin'" man who doesn't like to stay in one place. She believes he married her because she was a homebody and would take care of a house. She was happy to do so to have him.

Chapters 4-6, Thursday Afternoon, Guitar, Work Summary and Analysis

On Thursday afternoon, Hager's youngest daughter Harriet comes home to visit. She decided to quit her job as a waitress because white men harassed her too much and asked her to sleep with them. Instead, she wanted to get a job as a chambermaid at a hotel making good money. Harriet was pretty and was young enough to still be hostile to Hager, in her teenage years perhaps. The entire chapter consists of a conversation between Harriet and Hager.

Harriet doesn't want to follow Christianity as Hager demands that she do. She thinks that Christianity makes black people stuck up and unable to have fun. She thinks of Jesus as "stiff" and "white" and notes that Tempy spends all her time in church but that this just makes her stuck up and arrogant. Instead, Harriet wants to spend her time dancing and having fun with boys. Hager demands that she start acting like a Christian again, but Harriet ignores her. Hager breaks down when Harriet is about to leave with a bunch of boys and begs for her to be good. Harriet walks out.

In "Guitar", Jimboy has come home and is playing his guitar and singing. Harriet is singing with him, as they have done since she was a little girl when Jimboy would come home. Jimboy sings many songs that he has learned from across the country, including the blues. Annjee is hurt that when Jimboy comes home he starts singing with Harriet and doesn't say a word to her. She makes him food and he doesn't seem interested in eating it, but eventually he puts down the guitar and sets her on his lap and eats. Annjee is happy.

"Work" begins with Jimboy and Sandy fishing. They're clearly glad to spend some time together. Jimboy wouldn't be working that day since he'd been laid off due to the fact that white men refused to work alongside a black man. After fishing, Sandy had to run off and help his mother, who was cooking at the Rice's, a rich white family.

Sandy saw that his mother worked very hard and that Mrs. Rice, the blond, skinny white woman, was constantly telling Sandy what to do and criticizing her and condescending to her when she had the chance. Sandy complains to Sandy that these white people are so particular and babied, pampered as they were by their black servants.

Sandy cries when he sees his mother sweating and Mrs. Rice taking such ruthless advantage of her. When they get home, Annjee was happy to have the evening since black people had to give their day "to white folks".

Chapters 7-9, White Folks, Dance, Carnival Summary and Analysis

"White folks" hones in on the racial struggles of the black people of Stanton. The entire chapter consists of stories about how the main characters suffered under the white men where they lived. Harriet wasn't permitted to sit with her white classmates at school...

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Keywords

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