I keep thinking about the discussion we had over Langston Hughes’s character Cora in the short story “Father and Son,” found in Hughes’s novel, The Way of White Folks. In it, Cora, a black servant, seemingly willingly becomes the black mistress to her white owner, Colonel Norwood. Not only does Colonel Norwood seem to care about Cora, but Cora also seems to love him. With each other, they have four children and the only children, white or black, that Colonel Norwood has.
We spent a lot of time talking about survival strategies, resistance, and ways in which African Americans “played the part” Whites wanted them to. However, I think in our brief analysis of Cora, we neglected to consider that Cora becoming Colonel Norwood’s mistress was her survival strategy. The more and more I let Cora’s situation and character in, the more I realized that I could not fault her for the decisions she made.
How can I fault someone for wanting to be with the person they seemingly loved? Given her other options (to marry a man she didn’t love and who would have been less well-off than the Colonel), isn’t the refusal to live without the person you love one form of resistance? The Colonel also provided her economic opportunities and a form of respect that would have been closed off from her had she not been his mistress. Isn’t that a form of survival? Norwood also provided chances for her children that white society denied others in their station. Isn’t that a form of escape?
In the end, Cora’s choices end in tragedy. With the rich psycho-emotional/analytical material the Hughes provides, you could argue that Cora’s choice of survival leads to a new form of imprisonment. We know how the story ends. We have the luxury of hindsight. However, you have to put yourself in Cora’s shoes. Before her feet was a chance for physical love, emotional fulfillment, economic and social advancement, and a promise of a better future for her and her own. Really, what was her crime?
During discussion, some expressed a hardship in understanding Cora and the choice that she made—why would a black servant choose to sleep and become the mistress of a white man? Didn’t Cora have an equal hand in both her sons deaths? To that, I cannot say. And, perhaps this story suffers from an over psychoanalytical treatment. But, I would like to explore Cora’s world a little more.
One source that’s been really helpful for me is the Southern Oral History Project part of Documenting the American South. Just a simple keyword search has brought up some rich stories of Southern women, White and Black, and their experiences during this time. With searchable transcripts, you can quickly and efficiently find just about anything you could be searching for.
What do you think? Do you think Cora made the right decision? Did she have an equal role in Willie and Bert’s deaths? Could Cora have prevented her children’s deaths? Do you think she loved Colonel Norwood and vice versa? Do you respect Cora? What choice would you have made?