Fern by Jean Toomer, 1923 Continue reading
Blood-Burning Moon by Jean Toomer, 1923 Continue reading
Truant by Claude McKay, 1932 Continue reading
He Also Loved by Claude McKay, 1928 Continue reading
The Gilded Six-Bits by Zora Neale Hurston, 1933 Continue reading
Thank You, Ma’am by Langston Hughes, 1958 Continue reading
Slave On The Block by Langston Hughes, 1933 Continue reading
Talk To The Music by Arna Bontemps, 1971
The magic trick:
The single paragraph describing Storyville
It is only one paragraph, but it’s a remarkable description of the Storyville part of New Orleans. It is the part of town where Mayme Dupree sings. The part of town where the blues live. The part of town where the real-world struggle of adult southern black life exists. The part of town where our young narrator, Norman, longs to grow up. One paragraph sums it up brilliantly (especially the part about desire). And that’s quite a trick on Bontemps’s part.
The lights were coming on in Storyville as we reached the district, and there was a good bit of going and coming in the streets. Saloons were hitting it up, and in some the tinkle of glasses dissolved into a background of ragtime piano thumping. But the overall mood, as I sensed it, was grim, and furtive shadows moved along the street. Can desire be anything but sad? I wondered as the carriage pulled up beside an ornate hitching post. I jumped out and waited for Mayme to put her foot on a large square-cut steppingstone.
One Christmas Eve by Langston Hughes, 1933
The magic trick:
Showing how typical, happy white Christmas activities of the ’30s could take away from the black Christmas experience
Just as we saw in Chekhov’s masterful “Gooseberries,” Langston Hughes reminds us that everyone functions as part of a community. The things you enjoy – even the seemingly innocuous pleasures of Christmastime – can have negative consequences for someone else.
In “One Christmas Eve,” the white characters of the story don’t commit any crimes; they don’t show any egregious hate beyond the norm of their 1930s American society. And yet their actions limit the Christmas cheer for the story’s black characters.
The family for whom Arcie works is late coming home from shopping, keeping Arcie away from her son on Christmas Eve. The Missus doesn’t have Arcie’s promised pay. Societal segregation keeps Arcie and her son, Joe, from fully enjoying the splendor of the town decked out for the holidays. When Joe innocently wanders into the white movie theatre, he is shooed away by the white man dressed as Santa Claus.
Hughes makes this point abundantly clear throughout the story by describing the scenes with positive adjectives. The tree is “lovely;” the snow is “pretty;” the children look “happy.” These descriptions contrast directly with the way in which Arcie’s point of view is related. She is stressed, angry, embittered, and world-weary. Nights like this, we are made to see, will soon do the same to young Joe as well. It is a sad, but important, side of Christmas in the 1930s. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
“O-oo! Lookee…,” little Joe kept saying, and pointing at things in the windows. How warm and pretty the lights were, and the shops, and the electric signs through the snow.
It took Arcie more than a dollar to get Joe’s mittens and things he needed. In the A&P Arcie bought a big bag of hard candies for forty-nine cents. And then she guided Joe through the crowd on the street until they came to the dime store. Near the ten-cent store they passed a moving picture theatre. Joe said he wanted to go in and see the movies.
Arcie said, “Ump-un! No, child! This ain’t Baltimore where they have shows for colored, too. In these here small towns, don’t let colored folks in. We can’t go in there.”
“Oh,” said little Joe.
This Morning, This Evening, So Soon by James Baldwin, 1960
The magic trick:
Jumping between present, past, and future to reflect the story’s ideas about time and identity
Time, place, and identity loom large over this story, so it makes sense that Baldwin jumbles up all three elements throughout the unfolding of the narration. Our narrator, a nightclub singer who is moving back to the United States after 12 years in Paris, discusses a morning and evening in the present tense. But he also bounces back and forth between different memories from his past in America and France, all the while anticipating his feelings about adapting to an uncertain future. Some of it has a tendency to ramble, and I’m not sure some of the racial comparisons and contrasts always add up, but the point is made clear: one’s sense of identity is a complex thing, especially for an African-American expatriate in the 1950s. And that’s quite a trick on Baldwin’s part.
Once I had been an expert at baffling these people, at setting their teeth on edge, and dancing just outside the trap laid for me. But I was not an expert now. These faces were no longer merely the faces of two white men, who were my enemies. They were the faces of two white men in accordance with what I knew of their cowardice and their needs and their strategy.