Not without Laughter

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Not without Laughter

by Langston Hughes


A novel set in Kansas in the first decades of the twentieth century; published in 1930.


A young boy, growing up in a poor black family, struggles to understand the conflicts within his own family as well as the conflicts between whites and blacks that divide his community and the nation.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in a small town in Missouri, and lived for several years with his grandmother in Kansas before joining his mother in Chicago, Illinois. Moving to New York City, Hughes enrolled at Columbia University in 1921, but was lured away from his studies by the glitter of Broadway and by the flourishing clubs in Harlem. Hughes journeyed to the thriving ports of Africa such as Dakar and Luanda to see what he referred to as the motherland of his people. Then he lived and traveled in Europe before returning to the States, where he became the most famous poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His first novel, Not without Laughter, won the Harmon Foundation Gold Award for Literature, a $400 prize awarded to outstanding black artists.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Takes Place

Exodus from the South

After the Civil War, many impoverished blacks felt that they had little choice but to work for their former masters—not as slaves, but as sharecroppers. For the use of a plot of land, tools, seeds, plus clothing and food for his family, the black farmer would surrender to the landowner a share, usually 50 percent, of the harvest. Generally the landowner required that his sharecroppers also buy goods on credit at his store, which often consumed their portion of the income and robbed them of the chance to ever get ahead, or save enough to buy their own plots.

Searching for alternatives, some blacks fled the South. A devastating crop failure in 1878 spurred mass migration westward. Benjamin Singleton, an exslave from Tennessee, circulated flyers describing the opportunities in “Sunny Kansas.” He established a land company, bought property in Kansas, and led several groups of Southern blacks there to live in separate, all-black towns. Altogether about 100,000 blacks left the South to move westward. Life for the destitute immigrants was scarcely easier in these new homes, and most of the all-black towns eventually dissolved.

The exodus slowed as white Southerners, irritated by the loss of their cheap labor, realized they had to offer better wages or income arrangements to give black workers some incentive to stay. Discouraging news from the new communities in the West dissuaded more migration, on top of which prominent black leaders such as Frederick Douglass warned blacks against leaving the South, where he contended that they had a virtual monopoly on the labor supply. Nevertheless blacks continued to leave the South, both for Kansas and for even remoter locales like Chicago and even Mexico.

Labor unions

The Emancipation Proclamation added 4 million freed slaves to the United States’s labor supply. Although many blacks could do little more than return to plantations as field hands, others competed with skilled white workers for jobs as craftsmen or artisans. To safeguard jobs for their white members, most labor unions denied membership to blacks.

The labor unions in the United States were just beginning to press for reforms, such as a maximum eight-hour workday. But when the white unions organized strikes to force management to heed their demands, management would often replace the strikers with black workers desperate for jobs. This practice forced some unions to change their policy and admit blacks as members.

Other unions, particularly those in the South, continued to deny admission to blacks, even though in doing so the white union members hurt themselves. The Industrial Commission on Relations and Conditions of Capital and Labor established by Congress in 1898 recorded that a unionized white bricklayer demanded $2.50 a day, whereas a black bricklayer could be hired for $1.75. “If a white bricklayer... asks for employment,” one contractor testified, “and makes known his rate of wages, which is $2.50 a day... the employer may say to him in return, I can employ a Negro bricklayer who has as much skill as you, and will do as good service for $1.75. Now, I will put you on at $2.25” (Foner, p. 87).

Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois

An ex-slave, Booker T. Washington was asked in 1881 to take charge of an industrial training school for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama. Washington, by then a teacher, won renown as the Tuskegee Institute’s reputation grew. In 1895 Washington delivered his most famous speech, known as the Atlanta Compromise, at the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta. “Keep in mind,” Washington warned young blacks, “that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labor” (Jackson, p. 22). Nothing so calmed the Southern whites as Washington’s assertion that for the black people to agitate for social equality at this point would be extreme folly. He advocated a temporary compromise on white practices like segregation.

The year 1895 was also the one in which W. E. B. Du Bois, who would become Washington’s most prominent opponent, became the first black man to earn a Ph.D., writing his doctoral thesis at Harvard on the suppression of the African slave trade. Du Bois went on to found the Niagara Movement (1905), which evolved into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and dedicated itself to opposing Washington’s policy of compromise on practices such as segregation. Du Bois founded and edited The Crisis (1910-1934), a magazine that published many of the works of black artists during the Harlem Renaissance as well as his own writings.

Du Bois believed that Washington, by encouraging blacks to seek an industrial education, was limiting their opportunities. In his most famous book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois describes Washington’s efforts as a program of conciliation to the South, and silence in regard to civil and political rights. Du Bois believed that “the Talented Tenth … the best and most capable … must be schooled in the colleges and universities,” not in a Tuskegee-style industrial training school (Du Bois in Jackson, p. 25). The members of the Talented Tenth would, Du Bois contended, educate and uplift the black people as well as explode myths of racial inferiority.

Blacks and the Christian church

In 1787, after being turned out of the inner sanctuary of the St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia by a white church trustee, two black men, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, organized the first all-black church. Before this, both in the North and South, free blacks and slaves of all denominations worshipped alongside whites, roped off, however, in a “colored only” section of the church. Inspired by Jones and Allen, blacks founded all-black churches across the nation.

Baptists belong to the Protestant branch of Christianity, their name stemming from their beliefs about the rite of baptism, the symbolic use of water to cleanse a person of original sin. In their view the rite should be administered only to adults when they profess their religious faith, and it should be achieved by total submersion of the person in water. In post-Civil War America, most blacks were Christian, and almost three-fourths of the Christian blacks in the United States were Baptist. The black church served as a center for black social life outside the control of whites. In addition to religious services, churchgoers held suppers, lectures, Sunday schools, and meetings for women’s societies or

workers. The church also furnished members with money when they were ill and provided funerals for the poor.

At the turn of the century a black middle class composed of white-collar workers and professionals emerged. Many members of this new middle class wished to distance themselves from the poorer blacks, who kept jobs as domestics or agricultural workers. The first step taken by members of this new middle class was to leave the Baptist church in favor of the Presbyterian or Episcopal church. To them, the rite of baptism and the spirituals popular in Baptist congregations seemed crude and primitive. These “cornfield ditties … [this] heathenish mode of worship,” a Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal church proclaimed, “[will] drive out all intelligence and refinement” (Meshack, p. 21).

The next step taken by these new members of the middle class was to remove any hint that their churches were all black. The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church became the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church. The middle-class leaders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church substituted American for “African.” The attempts to compete with white congregations by building equally august and ornate churches left middle-class black congregations virtually bankrupt. Commenting on the demolition of a small church in Virginia to make way for a larger, more expensive building, William Wells Brown—an escaped slave who won fame through his writing after the Civil War—insisted that “the determination of late years to ape the whites in the erection of costly structures to worship in, is very injurious to our people” (Brown in Sernett, p. 242).

Going even further, at the turn of the century, many young black people scorned their parents’ faith altogether. Christian piety in a racist nation seemed farcical to them. Commenting on this generation, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote “one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die” (Sernett, p. 317). Harriet, a character in Hughes’s novel, repudiates her mother’s religion, complaining “the church has made a lot of you old Negroes act like Salvation Army people.... Your old Jesus is white.... He’s white and stiff and don’t like niggers!” (Hughes, Not without Laughter, p. 55).

Black soldiers in the First World War

When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, prominent leaders such as Du Bois exhorted African Americans to enlist. The South contributed greatly to the number of blacks who were drafted. There was a tendency among the all-white draft boards in the South to conscript blacks of military-service age rather than take white men from their families. With more than 20,000 blacks already in the regular army and the state national guards, the War Department actually grew reluctant to accept black recruits and issued an order to halt black enlistment.

Brawls erupted between white civilians and black soldiers in training camps. Emboldened by their participation in the war effort, black trainees challenged the “Jim Crow” laws in some communities where they were stationed. When a black sergeant was refused admission to a theater in Manhattanville, Kansas, his regimental mates protested. The white general in charge, C. Ballou, responded by directing the troops to attend quietly to their duties and not venture into places where they were not wanted. When black soldiers tried to board a whites-only tram in Houston, Texas, there was an ensuing fight that claimed the lives of twelve civilians. Fourteen of the soldiers were sentenced to life imprisonment and thirteen were sentenced to death.

In spite of the contemptuous attitudes bf white soldiers and officers towards their black comrades, the black combat divisions distinguished themselves as valorous soldiers. One black infantry unit won twenty-one American Distinguished Service Crosses and sixty-eight French War Crosses.

War slogans calling for the self-determination of all peoples and the end of German oppression inspired blacks with the hope that, after an Allied victory, racial justice would prevail in America. In 1919, however, a series of violent race riots which erupted in twenty-six cities across the country shattered these hopes. President Wilson sobered the nation by declaring that most of the outbreaks were started by whites. This injustice, he insisted, was particularly despicable because troops of black Americans had only recently returned from contributing significantly to victory in the war.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Grandma Hager Williams lives in a dilapidated house in Stanton, Kansas, with Annjee, one of her three daughters, and Sandy, Annjee’s son. Annjee works as a maid for a white family, and Grandma Hager, although old, continues to work as a washerwoman, often sending Sandy to fetch white people’s clothes, which she then starches and irons. Tempy, Hager’s oldest child, has avoided her family ever since she married a

mail clerk who owns some property. Harriet, Hager’s youngest child, has taken a job waiting tables instead of finishing school.

Hager is a loyal Baptist and her children’s dis-interest in the church worries her. Since she married, Tempy left the Baptist church. “Too many low niggers,” she complained. Instead she joined an upper class church “where de best people go” (Not without Laughter, p. 37). Annjee is quite infatuated with her husband Jimboy, Sandy’s irresponsible father, who is always roaming around the country in search of adventure or a job. She still attends church, where she prays for Jimboy’s return. Harriet, who comes and goes at her mother’s house, is Hager’s greatest concern. Harriet refused to finish high school, insisting “there ain‘t no use in learnin’ books fo’ nothin’ but to work in white folks’ kitchens” (Not without Laughter, p. 36). Hager worries because “de chile goes with such a kinder wild crowd o’ young folks” (Not without Laughter, pp. 38-9).


Opportunities in the music industry lured many blacks to cities like New Orleans, Memphis, St, Louis, and New York*. For black women jobs as entertainers were often the sole alternative to tedious work as a domestic. Bessie Smith, for exampie, left Chattanooga, Tennessee, to pursue a career as a blues singer. She began touring in 1912 and by the 1920s was known as the Empress of the Blues.

Hager erupts with rage when Harriet announces her plans to quit her job as a waitress and work as a chambermaid in a hotel with Maudel, a friend of hers. “You ain’t gonna work in no motel,” she exclaims. “They’s dives o’ sin” (Not without Laughter, p. 53). She wishes Harriet were more like her sister Tempy. The comparison offends Harriet, who sneers “Tempy? … So respectable you can’t touch her with a ten-foot pole.… When niggers get up in the world, they act just like white folks” (Not without Laughter, p. 54).

Jimboy sends a letter announcing his plan to return to Stanton. Scarcely a day after he arrives, the neighborhood echoes with “his rich low bari-tone voice giving birth to the blues” (Not without Laughter, p. 59). When Hager scolds Jimboy for losing his job as a bricklayer, he explains “the white union men started sayin’ they couldn’t work with me because I wasn’t in the union … the boss came up and paid me off. ‘Good man, too,’ he’ says to me, ‘but I can’t buck the union.’ So I said I’d join, but 1 knew they wouldn’t let me” (Not without Laughter, p. 87).

Harriet leaves home and joins a traveling carnival, hoping to begin a career as a blues singer.

Jimboy gets the urge to travel again and leaves without even saying goodbye to Annjee. Once again abandoned by Jimboy, Annjee falls ill and spends her days in bed. Harriet sends a letter from Memphis, Tennessee, asking for enough money to buy her way home to Stanton. Since Annjee has not been able to work, she can only send the money she was saving for Sandy’s Christmas present.

Harriet returns to Stanton, but decides to live with her friend Maudel in a seedy part of town rather than with her mother. A letter from Jimboy gives Annjee the resolve to leave Stanton and join him in Detroit, where he hopes to get a job in a car factory. She plans to leave Sandy behind with Hager. “One by one you leaves me,” Hager sighs, “But Sandy’s gonna stick by me … and I’s gwine to make a fine man out o’ [him]” (Not without Laughter, p. 173).

Sandy gets a job sweeping up in a barber shop after school, then soon leaves it to make a little more money cleaning up in a hotel. Harriet is arrested for prostitution and fined $10. Sandy of ten sees her parading outside the hotel with men in fancy clothes. In the hotel customers recount obscene stories that make Sandy ill. Once, when summoned by a client, he opens the door to see a white woman standing naked in the middle of the room combing her hair. “Come in,” the man with her says, “she won’t bite.” But Sandy flees, thinking “colored boys [get] lynched for looking at white women, even with their clothes on” (Not without Laughter, p. 213).

Grandma Hager falls seriously ill. Although she insists she is fine, the doctor says she will soon die. Harriet and Tempy send a letter to Annjee, but Hager dies long before they receive any response. Harriet then disappears, and is rumored to have appeared on stage in Kansas City. Back in Stanton, Sandy moves into Tempy’s house, where he must get up early, speak grammatically correct English, and wear outfits from an expensive clothing store.

Sandy gets the mumps, and to amuse himself while he is bedridden, he takes up reading. He leafs through Tempy’s copies of The Crisis, a monthly publication featuring the writing of W. E. B. Du Bois. “He is a great man,” Tempy says. Remembering that Hager had once called Washington the greatest of men, Sandy asks “Great like Booker T. Washington?” “Teaching Negroes to be servants,” Tempy snorts, “that’s all Washington did!” (Not without Laughter, p. 242).

In spite of Tempy’s objections, Sandy starts to spend his evenings at a local pool hall. Here he can shoot dice, play pool, or sit outside with his friends and watch the girls go by. One evening he picks up a newspaper and reads “Actress makes hit … Harrietta Williams, sensational young blues-singer, has been packing the Booker Washington Theater” (Not without Laughter, p. 253).

World War I has broken out and Tempy is convinced “colored boys are over there fighting... white folks will see that the Negro can be trusted in war as well as peace. Times will be better after this for all of us” (Not ”without Laughter, p. 255). A letter from Annjee informs Sandy that his father has enlisted and been sent off to France. Another letter from his mother says that she has found a job for Sandy in Chicago as an elevator attendant. Although he has not yet finished school, Sandy leaves Stanton to join his mother, dreaming of the shiny towers of a metropolitan city.

The dusty slums of Chicago disappoint Sandy, and his work is dull and monotonous. He wants to finish school, but cannot afford to quit his job. When Harriet comes to Chicago to perform, Annjee and Sandy get tickets. The show is a smash. Afterwards Sandy and his mother join Harriet at a restaurant. Harriet is appalled to learn that Sandy has not finished school. “Hager’d turn over in her grave,” she exclaims, “the way she wanted to make something out of this kid” (Not without Laughter, p. 297). She offers to give Sandy the money he needs to quit his job.

Generational conflicts

Hager’s quarrels with her daughters reveal the conflicting attitudes that divided emancipated slaves from their children. When Harriet exclaims:

Darkies … like the church too much, but white folks don’t care nothing about it at all. They’re too busy getting theirs out of this world, not from God. And I don’t blame ’em, except that they’re so mean to niggers.

(Not without Laughter, p. 82)

Hager scolds her:

Honey, don’t talk that way, it ain’t Christian, chile. If you don’t like ’em, pray for ’em, but don’t feel evil against ’em. I was in slavery, Harrie, an’ I been knowin white folks all ma life, an’ they’s good as far as they can see—but when it comes to po’ niggers, they just can’t see far, that’s all.

(Not without Laughter, p. 82)

But Harriet mistakes her mother’s forbearance for resignation. “You can pray for ’em if you want to, mama,” she exclaims, “but I hate ’em!... I hate white folks!” (Not without Laughter, p. 90).

Meanwhile, Tempy’s arrogance reflects the haughty disdain many middle-class blacks expressed for poorer blacks. “Tempy,” Harriet cries out in disgust, “the highest-class Christian in the family—Episcopal, and so holy she can’t even visit her own mother” (Not without Laughter, p. 55). Tempy’s contempt for Booker T. Washington was another trendy pose for the many middle-class blacks who preferred Du Bois. “Du Bois was a doctor of philosophy and had studied in Europe! … That’s what Negroes needed to do,” Tempy thinks, “get smart, study books, go to Europe” (Not without Laughter, p. 242). Hesitant to trust his aunt’s judgment, Sandy reads Washington’s Up from Slavery and decides that both Washington and Du Bois were great men.


Hughes created his characters based on his own childhood memories. “I wanted to write about a typical Negro family in the Middle West,” he explained in his autobiography, “about people like those I had known in Kansas.” But he conceded that his “was not a typical Negro family. My grandmother never took in washing or worked in service or went much to church. She had lived in Oberlin and spoke perfect English, without a trace of dialect” (Hughes, The Big Sea, p. 303). “For the purposes of the novel,” he explains, “I created around myself what seemed to me a family more typical of Negro life in Kansas than my own had been. I gave myself aunts I didn’t have, modeled after other children’s aunts whom I had known” (Hughes, The Big Sea, p. 304).

Although Sandy’s family is not like Hughes’s family, Sandy resembles Hughes himself. Like Sandy, Hughes worked as a child “cleaning up the lobby and toilets of an old hotel” (Hughes, The Big Sea, p. 22). Living in a small town in Kansas, Hughes also dreamt of the seemingly biggest town in the world—Chicago. And Hughes’s father, like Jimboy, left Hughes’s mother to travel.

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The novel in Hughes’s life

Hughes’s parents separated soon after his birth. His father went to Mexico, hoping to escape discrimination. While his mother traveled in search of a good job, Langston lived in Lawrence, Kansas, with his grandmother. “1 was unhappy for a long time, and very lonesome, living with my grandmother,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Then it was that books began to happen to me, and I began to believe in books and nothing but books” (Hughes, The Big Sea, p. 16). After his grand-mother’s death in 1914 Hughes lived with an old friend of hers whom he called “Auntie Reed.” Auntie Reed, a practicing Christian, made Hughes go to church each Sunday.

Hughes finished high school, and then, after publishing some of his first poems in The Crisis in 1921, enrolled at Columbia University. He soon left, however, to take jobs around New York City and later as a cook’s helper on a boat to Africa. After traveling in Africa and Europe, Hughes returned to the United States to continue publishing his poetry. In 1926 he enrolled at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he wrote Not without Laughter, which was published as he was graduating.

The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance is the term used to describe the creative outpouring of black poets, artists, and musicians in the 1920s centered around this section of Manhattan. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, middle-class blacks had settled in Harlem, then an affluent, predominantly white suburb, to escape the crowded slums of New York. As blacks moved in to the community, many whites moved out. This black community, growing in the center of a city considered the artistic capital of the United States, became a mecca for black artists.

In 1925 Alain Locke, one of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance, captured the spirit of the movement in the title of an anthology of works by young writers, The New Negro. Whereas many black artists before the war had sought to imitate European artistic trends, artists of the Harlem Renaissance renounced the goal of assimilation. Confronting, rather than eschewing, racial issues, they forged poetry and music from their experience as an oppressed minority with its own rich cultural traditions.

The surge of interest among whites in black culture during the 1920s coincided with a popular uprising against the restraints of remnants of the Victorian era and Prohibition. While some whites were genuinely interested in the distinctive and innovative black artists, others turned blacks into a symbol of liberation. Many black authors, in sore need of cash prizes offered by white patrons, satisfied this taste, reproducing in their writing the exotic image of the noble savage. “A Negro writer these days is a racket,” asserts one of black novelist Wallace Thurman’s characters, “and I’m going to make the most of it while it lasts” (Kellner, p. xxiii).


Not without Laughter received mixed reviews. Some critics praised the novel, insisting, “Hughes more than any other author knows and loves the Negro masses” (Dickinson, p. 59). But other reviewers were less enthusiastic. “Hughes would have done well,” one critic says, “to treat Sandy at greater length” (Dickinson, p. 58). Some black reviewers considered Sandy’s decision to finish his education a triumph of conservative or assimilationist tendencies. “Sandy emerges as a symbol of racial advancement,” one critic pointed out, “which is hardly a laughing matter” (Dickinson, p. 59). After listing the “Books We Must Read,” the editors of The Crisis included Not ”without Laughter in the list of “Books One May Read.” This label, however, hardly slowed the sales of Hughes’s popular novel, whose publication had been eagerly anticipated; he was by then a prominent poet.

For More Information

Dickinson, Donald. A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes, 1920-1960. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms, 1964.

Foner, Philip. Organized Labor and the Black Worker, 1619-1981. New York: International, 1974.

Hughes, Langston. Not without Laughter. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1969.

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1940.

Jackson, Florence. The Black Man in America, 1877-1905. New York: Franklin Watts, 1973.

Kellner, Bruce. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary for the Era. Westport, Conn: Green-wood, 1984.

Meshack, B. A., Is the Baptist Church Relevant to the Black Community? San Francisco: R. and E. Research Associates, 1976.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986-1988.

Sernett, Milton. Afro-American Religious History. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1985.