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Critical Essay by Dolan Hubbard
SOURCE: "Symbolizing America in Langston Hughes's 'Father and Son,'" in The Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring, 1992, pp. 14-20.
In the following essay, Hubbard discusses Hughes's observations on the mulatto and the culture of race as depicted in the short story "Father and Son."
Langston Hughes was haunted by a sense of literal kinship between black and white Americans. His preoccupation shows up in much of his writing, even in the poem "I, Too" with its arresting second line that glosses the experience of blacks in America: "I am the darker brother." This ancient and just claim for recognition and acceptance is rooted in the poet's own biography. On his maternal side, Hughes inherited an enhanced perspective of what it means to be loved in a mixed marriage, wherein the claims of family take precedence over artificial claims such as those of race. His great grandfather, Captain Ralph Quarles, was a white plantation owner who fell in love with Lucy Langston, a slave woman of Indian descent. Quarles had received her as chattel on a promissory note for money borrowed by her former owner, but he soon freed her. The two subsequently lived as a married couple on his Louisa County, Virginia, plantation (such a marriage, of course, was technically illegal). Quarles acknowledged paternity of their four children (unlike the iconoclastic patriarch in Hughes's literary productions), and sent them North to school where they were enrolled in Oberlin College. As a result of Quarles breaking with the accepted code of conduct for slaveholding whites, the entire family was ostracized. When Lucy Langston and Ralph Quarles died, they were buried as husband and wife, side by side on the farm. Their children proved to be even more active in resisting the expectations of a slave society. Charles Langston (1817–1892), Hughes's grandfather, distinguished himself as an abolitionist, educator, and reformer; John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), his renowned uncle, distinguished himself as educator, diplomat, and politician. As a descendent of arguably one of the more prominent black families in nineteenth-century America, Langston Hughes accepted his racial duality as a historical fact, that he did not necessarily reject, but he continually explored the ambiguities of his dual ancestry. These factors help account for Hughes's fascination with the "mulatto" and his unusual treatment of mixed-race characters in his texts.
For over a quarter of a century, Langston Hughes presented the mulatto theme in four different genres, in treatments varying in length from a twelve-line poem to a full-length Broadway play. Reduced to its simplest level, the "tragic mulatto" theme as depicted in American fiction and drama presents a character of a dual ancestry (usually the offspring of a white father and a black mother), who suffers because of difficulties arising from his or her biracial background. In "Cross", his first statement on the as yet unresolved American melodrama of family and race, Hughes renders in three quatrains the mulatto's complaint, his victimization as a result of his divided inheritance:
My old man's a white old man
And my old mother's black,
If I ever cursed my white old man
I take my curses back.
If I ever cursed my black old mother
And wished she were in hell,
I am sorry for that evil wish
And now I wish her well.
My old man died in a fine big house,
My ma died in a shack.
I wonder where I'm gonna die,
Being neither white nor black?
Unlike Jean Toomer and Georgia Douglas Johnson, who celebrated the mulatto as both white and black, Langston Hughes generally portrays the mulatto character as lamenting that he is neither white nor black, which actually fits the dominant ideology better. Hughes's glory, as was the glory of Charles Chesnutt and Paul Laurence Dunbar, was his wish and determination to be American. However, Hughes, unlike Chesnutt, Dunbar and Thomas Nelson Page, is not trapped by an outmoded romanticism. He advances a bold idea that America is far richer and more vibrant as a result of her encounter with Africa.
"Father and Son," the last story in The Ways of White Folks (1934), is the American tragedy of color caste told against the background of an ostensibly idyllic South. Set on the Norwood plantation in south Georgia in the 1930s, "Father and Son" is replete with the classic picture of plantation geography: the Big House, Quarters, and hard working, singing blacks. Somewhat God-like, Colonel Tom Norwood, the patriarch, proudly surveys all that he sees, for all within his purview is his—grounds, buildings, and five children (one dead) by his faithful black mistress of 30 years. Trouble in paradise takes the form of his youngest son—the spitting image of the Colonel—who returns home from Atlanta where he is a student at a black college. Bert Lewis returns to claim title to what he rightfully feels is his: the Norwood name and the rights and privileges attached to it. Try as she might, the despairing mother cannot keep the peace between the self-righteous, stubborn father and the equally stubborn son, who resents the Colonel for refusing to acknowledge him.
Bert Norwood, the intrepid protagonist, is one of a number of complex characters whom Hughes had portrayed, along with Roy Williams in "Home," and Oceola Jones in "The Blues I'm Playing." They resist definitional certainty in that they do not conform to the stereotype of the submissive, fawning "darky." In these three stories, Hughes engaged in a prolonged brooding over the fascinating spectacle of socially constructed existence.
The larger than life struggle between father and son is reinforced by a deeper realism which sees beyond and beneath the exterior world to the hidden reality which is the essence of things. The essence of things refers to the elemental human emotions rendered on an epic scale in white and black, dramatized against the background of fratricidal violence that bathes the beauty of an agrarian South in blood. Ostensibly, Hughes attacks the romantic vision of a verdant South, in which the Civil War is a noble and just cause. The apologists for this ideology do not acknowledge the violence that it takes to make the system work for the few while the many suffer in silence. Against the backdrop of an outdated economic system, one that no longer can sustain itself, Hughes presents us with something else—the denial of kin (whose antecedents have Biblical overtones). The unrecognized son insists on a right to his patrimony, his claim of identity with his father whose racist ideology conflicts with his tabooed interracial desire. Hughes looks behind the stereotype to demystify the mulatto. But the focus of the violence seems to be a family drama, amplified to represent on a larger scale an American tragedy.
The thirty-year relationship between the Colonel and Bert's mother fall outside the boundary that the society deems socially acceptable. It is not sanctioned by official institutions—economic, political, religious; which is to say, it is rendered invisible. Colonel Norwood, regardless of his social standing, does not change the status of his five children by his black mistress. They are black and inferior. It is precisely because of this lineage system, which can be described as descending miscegenation, that the black child inherits a patrimony of failure.
The Colonel cannot publicly acknowledge his black children; to do so would be tantamount to undermining the credibility of the system that empowers him, and which has shaped his image of himself. With a novel twist, Hughes asserts that the fight for the body obscures the real fight—the bastard son's fight for acknowledgment and family. In his adamant denial of any such acknowledgment or identity, the father uses racial rather than family identity as prima-facie evidence of separation. This choice then translates into control of the "black" body as is evident in the Colonel's unmerciful beating of the then 14-year-old Bert for calling him "Papa" in front of his white friends. And the Colonel repeats his threat of beating his now 20-year-old, athletically-gifted son for forgetting his place.
The fight for the body, for the text is the matrix within which all other terms are fleshed and shaped, as the Colonel is acutely aware with his references to Cora about Bert's being "your" not "our" son. In addition, the fight for the body is made manifest in the Colonel's condescending remarks to Cora about his educating her children. The implication is that he, the Lord of the land, gives and can take away as he closed the only public school in the county for black children once Cora's children graduated. That he sends Cora's black children to college in Atlanta is socially acceptable, as they attend segregated and inferior black institutions. Bert's fight for the text—his refusal to be a white folks' nigger—makes him appear, at best, indecently arrogant and, at worst, incurably mad. In a contemplative moment on the train ride home in the Jim Crow car, Bert ponders what it means to be black and the difference between his and his family's response to race:
"It's hell," Bert thought.
Not that Cora's other kids had found it hell. Only he had found it so, strangely enough. "The rest of 'em are too dumb, except little Sallie [two years behind him in college], and she don't say nothing—but it's hell to her, too, I reckon." the boy thought to himself as the train rocked and rumbled over the road. "Willie [the oldest] don't give a damn so long as his belly's full. And Bertha's got up North away from it all. I don't know what she really thought…. But I wish it hadn't happened to me."
The 'it' refers to Bert's acute self-consciousness which, like the mute red-headed baby in the story by the same name, is a synecdoche for the silent black subject trapped in history. One aspect of the racial text imposed on people such as Bert by whites who control the modes of production is a denial of their biracial and bicultural identity. The American racial text does not acknowledge the possibility of a person's being both black and white; it denies any family continuity between the races.
Hughes argues that white men's control of textuality constitutes one of the primary causes of the patrimony of failure. Forced to read texts written by powerful white men, blacks are forced to become characters in those texts. And since the texts written by these men assert as fact what blacks know to be fiction, not only do blacks lose the power that comes from authoring; more significantly, they are forced to deny their own reality and to commit in effect a kind of psychic suicide. Three manifestations of this psychic suicide are: first, the mother's sexual politics to make the quality of life better for her children; second, the nauseating subservience of Bert's oldest brother, Willie, who obediently knows his place; and third, the sister who moved to Chicago to escape from this repressive lifestyle. There is tremendous pressure on them to forget rather than remember the terror that is history. One sees the genesis of the blues in the circumscribed lives of these minor characters.
Determined not to be a "white folks' nigger", the rejected Bert engages in a time honored ritual of trying to displace the father. The mother tries to keep the peace between father and son. The father, for all of his supercilious posturing, finds himself rootless in spirit at the height of what should be his finest hour: the return home of his handsome and debonaire son who is the "spittin' image" of the Colonel. It is ironic that he, one of those who walks proudly in the light, now finds himself walking in the dark. For the better part of the day, Colonel Norwood remains sequestered in his library. In a curious reversal, he finds himself in exile on his own plantation as he experiences the impotence of power. The grotesque emerges in an unexpected form. To maintain his power, prestige, and privilege, Colonel Norwood, who fancies himself a benevolent patriarch, dons his demonic mask. As an archetype of his class, he is orgiastic in his exercise of power. The Lord of the land had become so rich on the backs of his black workers that he could command the "body politic." He sets in motion the legal machinery and public opinion that leads to the death of one son by suicide and the hanging of the other by an enraged mob.
In a variation on the freedom-restraint, flight-pursuit motif that is a recurrent theme in nineteenth-century Southern fiction, Hughes shows how both the father and son take turns being pursuer and pursued. On the day of Bert's homecoming, the secretly proud father retreats to his library, presumably containing many of the great books of western culture, yet he is not inclined to share the culture which he venerates. On another level, as the last of the white Norwoods, the Colonel is engaged in a flight from the new economic reality. He is at the mercy of economic forces that stand ready to gobble him up, as is evident by his concern for the depressed cotton market and the encroachment of industrial capitalism.
With an heightened self-consciousness, Bert returns home to engage in two struggles: the pursuit of that which he can never have—the Norwood name, and the struggle to free himself from being an object possessed or owned by another. Unlike his sister who is two years behind him in college, Bert refuses to suppress his natural personality in his quest for an autonomous self or quietly to accept definitional certainty as a silent subject. In these two interconnected yet distinct struggles, Bert shares the latter with all other black people, while the former stands reserved for those of white patriarchy who want to claim their ancestry. Boldly asserting his claim for full recognition of his bloodlines, Bert terrorizes the black community. The price they pay for his unrelenting quest for freedom is that they live in increased fear for their welfare. In Bert, Hughes anticipates Wright's nihilistic anti-hero, Bigger Thomas.
In "Father and Son," Hughes subverts the romance; the expected closure does not occur. Although there are no white heirs, Bert, the prince charming cannot win a bride and live happily ever after in this Eden kept beautiful by the hard working sons and daughters of Africa. Instead of the suave prince charming, wooing and winning a bride, there are the tragic consequences of filial rejection; Bert kills his gun-toting father with his bare hands in the twilight darkness of the library. He slays no dragons; he wins no honor that is socially approved; he does not become the lord of the estate. Instead of a happily married couple, there is the image of the embittered mother. Cora re-visions history as she redeems the good name of her soon-to-be-dead son. In her monologue directed at the dead man on the floor, she confronts the fiction of race:
"Colonel Tom, you hear me? You said he was ma boy, ma bastard boy. I heard you. But he's your'n too—out yonder in the dark runnin'—from your people."
Cora's lamentation over the imminent death of their son for killing his white father locates her at the intersection of subject and history—a ritual of pain that involves her rebuking the "white-male-is-norm ideology". Speaking as a lover and mother who bore the now dead Colonel five children, she questions her relation to the material conditions that define her and her existence. Like her hunted son, she finds herself at odds with language that arbitrarily privileges her blackness over her humanness.
That there is no romantic interest for the socially accomplished Bert speaks to the ideology that governs the patrimony of failure. Hughes understood that to destroy a people, you first destroy the men. This accounts, in large part, for the absence of stable family relationships in the short fiction of Langston Hughes. Lifting the veil on an ostensibly idyllic South, Hughes reminds us that the practical effect of the patrimony of failure is continued economic and social polarization.
To restate this observation from another angle of vision, Hughes rewrites Booker T. Washington's speech at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition (18 September 1895) in which Washington accepted social and legal segregation but promised racial friendship and cooperation. A people cannot work their way up from slavery if they adhere to an ideology of accommodation, the handmaiden of industrial capitalism in the United States. While he would disagree with the ideology that informs their vision, Hughes would agree with the Agrarians on our need to be careful of an uncritical worship of material progress as an end in itself. From this perspective, Hughes in "Father and Son" gives us a stunning example of one mode of American modernism.
This section contains 2,769 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)