Who’s Passing For Who? by Langston Hughes, 1953
The magic trick:
Mixing comedy and anger and lots of irony to question society’s obsession with racial definition
It’s tough to define Mr. Langston Hughes. He wrote so much and so many different kinds of things. The tone in this story seems to draw from the complete variety of his output and pour it all out at the same time in a confusing but dazzling rush. Is it funny? Very. Angry? Very. Intelligent? Very. Smug? A little. Self-aware – even of that smugness? Very much so.
I don’t know of any other writer who can pull all of that off. He’s all over the place here, but it works. It definitely works. It helps, for sure, that he published this probably 25 years after the scene he is describing. That allows him the necessary perspective to poke fun at himself and his friends. Without that, the tone probably skews too far into self-righteous anger. Not that self-righteous anger isn’t a worthy tone when discussing race relations of 1920s America, but this particularly story, veering as it does toward light comedy, is better for the mix of self-mockery and irony.
The white people are targets. Caleb, the black social worker who seems to enjoy playing travel guide for these white people, is a target. The narrator and his friends are targets. There are so many sociological punchlines to go around that, ultimately, the story’s central target is society itself – a society that has completely twisted itself into knots over racial definitions. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
One of the great difficulties about being a member of a minority race is that so many kindhearted, well-meaning bores gather around to help. Usually, to tell the truth, they have nothing to help with, except their company – which is often appallingly dull.
Some members of the Negro race seem very well able to put up with it, though, in these uplifting years. Such was Caleb Johnson, colored social worker, who was always dragging around with him some nondescript white person or two, inviting them to dinner, showing them Harlem, ending up at the Savoy – much to the displeasure of whatever friends of his might be out that evening for fun, not sociology.
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Great analysis of the story. I recently read “The Blues I’m Playing” where Oceola, a pianist, is the exotic pet to the rich, white art patron. “She was tremendously intrigued at meeting Oceola, never having had before amongst all her artists a black one.”