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In his first novel, Langston Hughes sang a song of himself

Today, Langston Hughes is known as one of the greatest American poets to ever live, as well as one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. He rubbed elbows with fellow greats like Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, and Jessie Redmon Faucet. He wrote an answer to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” that spoke to the Black experience, and his poems and other writings continue to move us with their heartfelt, clear-eyed accounts of Black life and art-making in the pre-Civil Rights era.

But one of Hughes’ most moving works is also his most autobiographical. In his 1930 bildungsroman Not Without Laughter, readers get a glimpse of what it was like to grow up Black, queer, and midwestern in a segregated world. Every coming-of-age novel is heartbreaking in its own way, but Hughes’ is in its own class: lyrical, vulnerable, and gripping, it’s a story about the making of a queer Black artist in a rough, punishing world that tries its best to rob him of his dreams.

Not Without Laughter—which opens on a cyclone scene to rival The Wizard of Oz in intensity—tells the story of Sandy, a young Black man with literary aspirations coming of age in Kansas after the turn of the century. Sandy lives with his mother Annjee, his Aunt Hager—who’s actually his grandmother—and his aunt Harriett. The matriarchal family struggles to make ends meet, with all three women taking up thankless service positions in white households to get by. Sometimes, Sandy’s father Jimboy shows up—but not often. And while Sandy longs for his father’s company, it’s the women in his family that show him how to live—and more importantly, how to survive with dignity and a sense of self in a racist world.

Aunt Hager is the one who makes the decisions for the family, and through her, Sandy comes to understand everything his generation narrowly escaped. Hager is old enough to remember slavery, and though her daughters often rebel against what they view as her old fashioned ways, they defer to her as the head of the household, even when her advice doesn’t suit them. The question for Sandy throughout is: what kind of man am I going to be? Specifically, what kind of Black man. In the adults around him, Sandy can see multiple paths toward adulthood. He could do what his mother and Hager want him to do, which is to take a low-paying service job at a hotel or restaurant and bring in steady, if pathetic, money for the family. He could take after his aunt Harriett and strike out on his own in the entertainment industry. Or, he could follow the tragic example of his other aunt, Tempy, a woman who married well and whose obsession with respectability politics leads her to internalize and perpetuate the anti-Black racism she sees in the white world around her.

Ultimately, Sandy chooses his own path: when the book ends, Hager has died and Sandy has been reunited with his mother in Chicago, where they’ve both just run into Harriett, now a successful blues singer on the stage. They’ve all been put through the mill: the white world has treated them cruelly, and the misogynistic standards of the time have forced Harriett and Annjee to put their dreams on hold in favor of just getting by. But they find happiness, ultimately, in each other, and in being together.

We know that Sandy’s going to turn out alright, because Sandy’s story is more or less Langston Hughes’s story. But he doesn’t escape his painful childhood unscathed. Like Sandy, Hughes struggled with conflicting ideas about artistry and Blackness growing up, about respectability and the things one has to do to make a living in a world that hates you. Hughes lets us in on Sandy’s emotional as well as intellectual development, telling us exactly how the young man is taking in what he sees around him. “God didn’t care if people were Black, did He?” Sandy wonders at one point. “What was God? Was He a man or a lamb or what?…Aunt Hager said He was a King and had a throne and wore a crown—she intended to sit down by His side by and by…”

Sandy is full of confusion about boys, girls, sex, literature, and the right path forward for him. Ultimately, he chooses the only past an artist can choose: his own. And while his coming of age means leaving his family behind in some respects, he finds a way to take them with him. One night, he wanders outside to look at the stars with his grandmother, and feels connected to a “great chorus out of the Black past.” Despite his harsh coming of age, he holds on to the thing that he knows will help him become an artist: that feeling of connection.

When the novel draws to a close, we understand everything Sandy has taken on, and how he’s going to use the pain of his upbringing to carve out a new kind of existence for himself, one he’s never seen modeled for him. He’s going to use his talent with language to tell the truth about what he’s seen and where he’s been, and Not Without Laughter is itself a result of that.

“A band of dancers…” Sandy thinks as he starts on his reverie. “Black dancers—captured in a white world…Dancers of the spirit, too. Each Black dreamer a captured dancer of the spirit…Aunt Hager’s dreams for [him] dancing far beyond the limitations of their poverty, of their humble station in life.”

Aunt Hager’s wish was for Sandy to become a great man, and he’s well on that path when Not Without Laughter ends. But he’s only been able to get there through the care and love the women in his family put into raising him. Their dreams were deferred so that his could take rise up and change the world, and that’s something Sandy won’t ever forget. ♦

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