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A Fatherless Child
Autobiographical Perspectives of African American Men
By Tara T. Green
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2009 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All rights reserved.
The Meaning of Langston Hughes's Father-and-Son Relationships
W. E. B. Du Bois could have been referring to Langston Hughes's The Big Sea when he wrote about the "longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self." In The Big Sea, the first of his two autobiographies, Hughes reveals the struggle that his father, James, had with "attaining self-conscious manhood"—a status that would have allowed the elder Hughes to live in America as a successful businessman, despite his race. Richard Wright observes, in his review of The Big Sea, Hughes's "father, succumbing to that fit of disgust which overtakes so many self-willed Negroes in the face of American restrictions, went off to Mexico to make money and proceeded to treat the Mexicans just as the whites had treated him." James Hughes became an expatriate in Mexico and assumed an identity that established him in a position of power as an American over poor Mexicans. His physical and psychological distance established an irreparable emotional divide between him and his son. Notably, while the father felt it impossible to embrace an identity that would merge the black and American selves in America, Hughes would use literature to affirm a black American identity.
As seen in the construction of the fathers in his fiction and autobiography, when both a father and a son are present, tension between the two emerges which has a major impact on the son's self-definition. Hughes's intimate knowledge of this tension likely motivated him to create a definition of a liberated black male self in his fictional construction of his son characters. Hughes poses a recurring question in his literature; it begins in his autobiography and resonates in some of his fiction: What is the impact of a father's absence or presence on his son's quest to attain a "self-conscious manhood?" Hughes's representations of fathers—the power-hungry, the ideal, and the homophobic—illuminate Hughes's concern with the importance of the father-son relationship and its influence on identity construction. In his fiction Not without Laughter, "Father and Son," and "Blessed Assurance," Hughes explores the convergence of race, gender, and/or economics and the impact they have on the conceptualization of identity. A theme of his autobiography also emerges in these fictional works: a son's struggle to gain his father's acceptance. In this chapter, I argue that through his occasional fascination with homoeroticism, his indulgence of African American musical forms, and his critique of capitalism, Hughes consistently rejects the definitions of black masculinity imposed by white patriarchy and supported by some black men. In doing so, he advocates a movement toward blackness as derived from his experiences within black communities, a location where acceptance of the black self could be gained and where rejection could be healed.
Hughes's search occurs through the construction of the autobiographical "I" of The Big Sea, which is decidedly retrospective and judgmental based on not only the individualized perspective, but one that speaks as a communal voice. To be sure, the community rejects that which rejects it. This voice is identified as Langston. It is Langston who makes the observations and experiences the emotion, but it is Hughes who writes about the experiences and interprets them. Ultimately, while Langston has little control of his environment, Hughes has control of it through his invocation of narrative techniques.
First, in order to understand how Hughes's relationship with his father moved him toward a concern with race, gender, and economics, it is necessary to examine closely the first part of The Big Sea. Hughes knew rejection and abandonment fairly early when his father left the country and his mother, Carrie, went in pursuit of an acting career, leaving him in the care of his maternal grandmother. Though his parents made an attempt to reconcile when Hughes was about six years old, the attempt failed when Hughes's mother returned to the United States after an earthquake in Mexico. Hughes was left in the care of his maternal grandmother. Sadly, Hughes did not have a reliable family structure, and he certainly did not have a consistent father figure. After his grandmother died, Hughes lived with his mother, stepfather, and stepbrother off and on through high school. Eventually, his stepfather, like his father, also left the family.
David Dudley asserts that African American men struggle in their autobiographies to establish a hero status that attempts to "persuade [their] readers that [their] own way is the correct path." In Hughes's case, his resistance of an older predecessor "who has pursued that goal by a different means" is prevalent in The Big Sea. Hughes is critical of his father, believing he traveled down the "incorrect path" by betraying his racial identity. Although Hughes was not reared by his father, he received a sense of what could be a model of an admirable black man from his maternal grandmother. Mary Sampson Patterson Leary Langston had been married to two courageous men: her first husband was killed in the John Brown insurrection; her second husband was a political and civil rights crusader. Based on their legacies, Hughes's grandmother prompted her grandson to follow in their footsteps. His charge was to uplift the race. Therefore, Hughes learned from a woman and indirectly from other men that a black man did not reject his identity as a black man in America but used his talents and skills to make his place in the country of his birth.
His childhood memories of his father emerge as a blend of his most pleasant memories and his psychic desires. He vaguely recalls his father's "carrying [him] in his arms the night of the big earthquake in Mexico City." His hope for a father who would embrace and accept him clashes with his mother's description of his father as a "devil on wheels.... As mean and evil a Negro as ever lived!" (TBS, 36). Hughes alternatively had come to envision his father as a "strong, bronze cowboy, in a big Mexican hat, going back and forth from his business in the city to his ranch in the mountains, free—in a land where there were no white folks to draw the color line, and no tenements with rent always due—just mountains and sun and cacti: Mexico!" (TBS, 36). Hughes creates a hero image of his estranged father, which includes his hope that the man can give him stability. Yet, James Hughes was angry about his experiences as an American black man, and, as a result, would fall short of his son's expectations (TBS, 36).
Hughes's view of his father as a black "cowboy" diminishes almost immediately when the two reunite. Unfortunately, the elder Hughes greets his seventeen-year-old son by asking him why he was not at the train station where he was to meet him, and Langston replies that he did not receive the wire until that morning since they had recently moved. His father's response is insulting: "Just like niggers.... Always moving!" (TBS, 37). Whether conscious or not, he has in one brief moment called his son a "nigger." And, his tone, as Hughes makes clear, does not leave anything vague by way of interpretation: "he spat" the words out, according to the son (TBS, 37). His father deliberately used "niggers" to project a sense of negativity. To his son's dismay, James Hughes has come to define "nigger" as any black person who lives in the United States. James's labeling is the first step in complicating the relationship Hughes seems to want to have with his father as the elder Hughes's attitude clashes with the pride his son's grandmother has instilled in him about the potential of his position as a black man in America.
Langston, likely shocked by these first few moments in their reunion, shows no sympathy for his father in his description. Sociologist Herman Sanders provides insight into the problems of a perception steeped in victimization:
One's behavior is greatly influenced by one's self-concept. The self-concept is used as a reference point. Self-acceptance or rejection of others are [sic] based on one's own concept. Self-acceptance generalizes toward the acceptance of others as a function of degree of self-acceptance, the greater the self-dissatisfaction, the greater generalization.
James Hughes makes a decision to separate himself completely from American blacks and, consequently, he hopes to separate himself from a black American identity. As Langston appears to move closer to understanding his estranged father, he also separates himself from him. As a result, Langston becomes clearer, at least, about the identity he will not embrace.
Langston's observation of his father in Mexico allows him to see his father as a man who has successfully assumed an empowered identity that he could not have had in America and to develop a supremacist attitude typical of racists. The attitude emerges through his open contempt for poor Mexicans. Langston recalls that his father called them "ignorant and backward and lazy. He said they were exactly like the Negroes in the United States, perhaps worse" (TBS, 40). Hughes writes, "He [James Hughes] thought it was their fault that they were poor"(TBS, 41). Hughes describes James Hughes as speaking about the Mexicans like the "other German and English and American businessmen" speak of them (TBS, 40). Although James Hughes is among a minority in Mexico, he projects a white patriarchal attitude, as discussed by Christopher Booker. Since the elder Hughes's language is reminiscent of white racists, Langston implies that his father embraces the identity. Langston does not discern any admirable traits in his father. His desire to see his father as a gallant black hero lessens when he learns that his father hates poor people of color, which suggests to Langston that his father hates him.
It is during the first visit that Langston admits that he hates his father, a consequence of constantly being told that he needs to "hurry up!" and finish a task, but he seems to mask a deeper reason for his resentment of his father. Arnold Rampersad observes, "In The Big Sea, deeper meaning is deliberately concealed within a seemingly disingenuous, apparently transparent, or even shallow narrative." From Hughes's perspective, not once during his stay did the father seem satisfied with the son's attempts to please him or seem interested in bonding with the son whom he has not seen for over ten years. As a result, except for the time that Langston spent with Maximiliano, "he was depressed and unhappy and board." Eventually, he put a pistol to his head "and held it there, loaded, a long time, and wondered if [he] would be happier if [he] were to pull the trigger" (TBS, 47). Langston is beleaguered by what he perceives as his father's primary concern with molding his son into an entrepreneur. Possibly overwhelmed with his father's attempt to spend time with him, Langston becomes severely ill the morning he is scheduled to travel to Mexico City with his father. He says, "when I thought of my father, I got sicker and sicker. I hated my father" (TBS, 49). As a result of his feelings, his stay in the hospital pleases him because he is able to make his father spend money on him, which makes him a priority.
Hughes refuses to characterize this as a moment where the two even come close to having an emotional moment. Instead, James Hughes's concern is significantly ignored by Hughes who vaguely mentions that his father came back from Mexico after four days and that he reserved the more expensive seats on a parlor car to take his son to the hospital. Absent from this are any of the words that must have been exchanged between the two. Hughes deliberately constructs James as a man who is a failure as a father, furthering the reality that they lack the ability to understand each other. Langston thus emerges as a proud hero and his father as a self-loathing villain.
Later, when Langston returns to Mexico for a second visit his father decides that he should go to school to become a mining engineer. The elder Hughes is adamant that his son will not be a poor black American like his mother and other blacks restricted by American racism. When Langston expresses his desire to be a writer, his father reminds him of his race by asking him about black writers who have made money. His desire, he makes clear, is for his son to "learn something you can make a living from anywhere in the world" (TBS, 62). James Hughes is not unlike many parents who want to see their children succeed, especially by making a good living. The problem, however, is that he believes that for a black person to achieve economic success he must shun his black identity. More to the point, he appears to equate blackness with oppression: if one is treated like a nigger in America, one is a nigger. Perhaps in rebellion, his son sees beyond oppression. Langston counters his father's ideology: "'But I like Negroes,' I said. 'We have plenty of fun.'" Langston sees himself as belonging to a group and is not discouraged by the political implications and social restrictions placed on the group. His father, on the other hand, does not ignore the deterrents. In this exchange Hughes writes himself into being through the story of Langston's search for a black self and home. James responds, "How can you have fun with the color line staring you in the face?" (TBS, 62).
Langston has an appreciation for the color line that his father cannot comprehend. Not only does Langston Hughes's rejection of his father move him closer to embracing black culture and a black identity, but it also encourages him to define his masculinity through a cultural lens that is not corrupted by accepting white patriarchy as the norm. In effect, Hughes's autobiography becomes a tool that seeks to achieve a positive paradigm of black masculinity while rejecting any suggestion that African American men aspire to "a corrosive, severely flawed notion of masculinity that has actually insured their black people's subjugation while failing to confer the desired subjectivity." Simply put, Hughes recognizes his father's identity as a black man as flawed. In his interpretation of James Hughes's offer to support his son if he does not return to the United States, Rampersad notes that he does indeed become a Satan figure—as Langston's mother has described her former husband—who offers his son a European education and access to his wealth if his son will only agree to not live in the United States, where he will be a "nigger," a word that for James is synonymous with black Americans. But, Langston, on the contrary, values African American heritage.
James Hughes exhibits what Sanders calls a "self-rejecting attitude" as a result of his early experiences with American racism. A major problem for him is his inability to reconcile the experiences of his past. While his son was taught that he would become an admirable black man by using other black men, notably his grandfather, as models, it is possible that James Hughes used his grandfathers as models as well. Both men were prominent whites from Kentucky—one a Jewish slave trader and the other a distiller. James Hughes's own father had been born a slave but died an Indiana farmer. His white patriarchs had been successful, and he had hoped to be as successful as they. James was an educated man who had earned two teaching certificates and had passed a civil service exam for the post office. He had also studied law and worked in a law office, but racism prevented him from taking the bar exam. Shortly after marrying Carrie Hughes in 1899, he took a job as a stenographer for a mining company. In pursuit of a lifestyle unencumbered by race, he moved to Cuba. When his venture there died, he moved to Mexico. James Hughes was clearly not only searching for better economic stability, but he was also fleeing the racism of the United States. When he left the United States, he intended to leave behind a country that did not recognize his rights to full citizenship. According to Langston Hughes, James was able to practice law in Mexico, and he became a wealthy businessman. Sanders explains that black men have several reactions to not having access to social equality: laughing it off, playing the clown, resigning, and rebelling. James's reaction, as an expatriate, is to resign.
Excerpted from A Fatherless Child by Tara T. Green. Copyright © 2009 The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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