You Can’t Go Home Again

The institution of the home has spawned countless feel-good adages, including such vernacular standards as “home is where the heart is” and “there’s no place like home.”  Home denotes comfort and safety; questioning that supposed truth provokes unease.  In Uncle Tom’s Children and The Ways of White Folks, Richard Wright and Langston Hughes use their characters’ homes to emphasize their futile situations.  When their home is debased by exposure, turmoil, and shame, their entire world becomes imperiled.  The instability of their homes reflect the uncertainty in the characters’ lives—or the certainty of their death.

Photograph by Marion Post Wolcott, 1938. Source Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wright’s childhood home plays a significant role in the opening of his autobiographical sketch “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow.”  Wright describes a bleak environment where cinders litter the grassless yard.  Like any child, he finds imaginative ways to elude this stark reality, bringing the charred clusters to life as innocuous weapons in his boyhood games.  The fun ends, however, when Wright and his pals encounter a crowd of white boys.  Wright sees the protection that his foes’ landscaped yards provide in the unfair fight of his cinders against their broken bottles.  Lacking this defense, Wright returns to his own home, where all the delight has suddenly vanished. [1]  His surroundings no longer elicit joy; he sees only the “appalling disadvantages of a cinder environment.” [2]

In Wright’s fictional stories, his depictions of home are likewise unsettling.  In “Down by the Riverside,” home provides little comfort in a crisis.  During a devastating flood, the main character Mann’s wife struggles with a difficult labor. [3] Mann’s house no longer provides comfort or protection; it becomes something tremendously useless, subject to be literally swept away at a moment’s notice.  Recognizing this reality, Mann chooses to navigate a white man’s stolen boat through complete darkness against a strong current to seek medical attention for his wife that, because of their race, is not guaranteed.  The absurdity of this “better” option highlights the fallible nature of the home and, in turn, the family’s existence.

Home loses its sacred privacy in “Long Black Song.”  Sarah, a young black woman with a small child, is left at home for a week while her husband Silas is away.  A traveling white salesman gains entry into her yard by hawking clocks; he enters her home, however, by making advances that Sarah cannot thwart. [4] The shroud of privacy that a home normally provides is mocked by the salesman’s painless infiltration.  When Silas discovers that a white man has been in his house, his rage forces Sarah to seek shelter in the nearby fields.  The house later becomes a war zone after Silas kills a white man, causing a mob to set fire to the house with Silas inside.  From the fields that offer the protection that her home no longer can, Sarah clutches her child and watches helplessly as the rest of her life goes up in flames. [5]

Langston Hughes’ “Father and Son” tells the story of Bert, the illegitimate son of white Colonel Norwood and his mistress Cora.  Bert grows up at school, far removed from his family’s Big House Plantation.  He returns home for a summer and, after displaying defiant behavior, is held there against his will by his father. [6] Bert ignites his father’s rage one night when refusing to exit through the back door of the Big House, asserting that, because of their irrefutable relationship, it is his home as well. [7] Bert kills his father and flees, returning home only when pursued by an angry white mob.  He chooses not to return to the cabins in the cornfields, but instead to the Big House.  This is not a life or death decision—he knows neither location offers true refuge.  Symbolically, though, Bert’s choice to take his own life in his father’s house becomes a final act of rejection against the alleged meaning of home.

If not home, where else is there for these characters to go?  They are equally vulnerable in the public sphere—lynchings were a major reality in these stories and during this historical era.  In such volatile times, these characters are not even afforded the constancy and safe haven of home.  In these stories, the only rest for the weary is death.  There is no going home.  They are truly without sanctuary.

 

[1] Richard Wright, “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” in Uncle Tom’s Children (New York:  Harper Perennial, 2004), 3.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Wright, “Down by the Riverside,” 63.

[4] Wright, “Long Black Song,” 137.

[5] Ibid., 156.

[6] Langston Hughes, “Father and Son” in The Ways of White Folks (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 231.

[7] Ibid., 241.

8 thoughts on “You Can’t Go Home Again

  1. I felt overwhelmed by these stories and the images on Without Sanctuary. By the last story, I knew how it was going to end — there was no way for it to not end in a lynching of some kind as each protagonist challenged the status quo and upset the social order. Bert’s suicide seemed like he had finally taken power in the situation, the first character to really do so successfully, until the last lines when his brother was also lynched. My heart breaks thinking about it, but I’m so glad that I had the experience of reading Wright’s work so I can be a witness to the pain.

  2. These stories and images are disturbing and heartbreaking on their own, but what added weight to them during my reading was the historical context surrounding them. Wright’s and Hughes’s characters were legally “free” from the system of slavery, but not its socio-economic tethers. They could not escape the perpetual cycle of hatred and violence. Take for example, Silas in “Long Black Song.” He worked hard to establish an independent living only to loss it all, including his life, at the hands of his wrongdoers. In this story Hughes writes, “And when killing started it went on, like a red river flowing” (Hughes 153). For me, this was one of the most powerful and telling quotes in the whole reading.

  3. I think that you are right that the home is a place that is not safe for the characters in Wright’s and Langston’s work. I think that the home and family are places that can be violated by violence and hate. However, I don’t think Wright or Langston want the reader to think that the black people of this period were without some strength and agency. Though almost all of the characters were murdered by lynching or mob, some of the characters were able to die on their own terms and often in defiance of the expectations of the white mob. In “Long Black Swan” Silas stays behind to defend his home because it is something he has worked for honestly and he confronts the mob and dies on his own terms without crying out and in his home. The same goes for Bert in “Father and Son” though the mob finds a new target in Willie to satisfy itself. In “Big Boy leaves Home” I was encouraged by the family and neighbors, that were able to come together and hatch a plan to help Big Boy escape. Though he escapes Big Boy later learns that his family home has been burned by the mob. I thought all of the stories were sad and tragic and were meant to show the brutality of the south and hate crimes against blacks during the 1930s, but I do think Langston and Wright meant to give some sense of hope and dignity to characters in some of their stories which is probably reflective of their own character and survival during this time.

    1. Mia,

      This is such a great point. I was thinking about the way that inner strength is emphasized in almost all of the stories. The characters are in horrible situations, yet they strive for personal dignity.

      I think there is tension between the idea of home and self-awareness. The more self-aware a character is of the reality of Jim Crow South and their place the further they are away from what we would call home. The reality of this time is that becoming self-aware means sacrifice and physical and mental suffering. Ironically, many of the characters, such as Mann, achieve this self-awerness and freedom only at their death.

      There is an undercurrent of Black Nationalism in these texts. Our idea of home is lost, but self-awareness creates a higher plane and new home. The new home is the home of all African Americans. This is where the importance of community comes into the stories.

      I think these authors were struggling with how Black Nationalism would take shape. For Hughes it was a beautiful renaissance, but the realities of his own childhood and the world made him understand the limits set on African American’s lives. Wright struggled with where the African American man fits into the world. This is most evident in Long Black Song when the preindustrial worker meets the capitalistic white man. Wright was unsure how his own communist ideas fit with Black Nationalism when the reality of the world was so harsh.

  4. Home is a sacred, safe space. I think it was the lynchers’ intention to violate home, because it further compounded the terror, violence, and hate that they were perpetrating. Violation of home space was yet another weapon to invoke fear and cause irreparable bodily and emotional damage, adding horrible insult to horrific injury.

    Matt’s point is also really interesting. These stories are particularly heartbreaking because the victims had fought so hard to be free from slavery and to gain certain rights. Lynchings and home invasions denied African Americans their legal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

    1. What I find just as intriguing as the invasion of home is the how family and community plays a role in establishing “home” for the characters. Both Wright and Hughes use family and tragedy to further remove the character from stability. For example, Wright’s “Down By the Riverside” starts off with the physical destruction of the home and ends with the tragedy of a man losing his wife–which makes him lose hope, or desire, to carry on– and ultimately a young boy losing both of his parents. During “Big Boy Leaves Home,” the main character is not protected by the physical shelter, but by his family and community. The destruction of these supports is a way for both authors to relate these readings to a general audience because it is something that we all depend upon and use to define ourselves. This invasion into family life plays well into both physical and symbolic manifestations of stripping the sacredness of home from the characters.

  5. It is always shocking to me how pervasive and contradictory white supremicism was in the South. Whites wanted to marginalize and control African-Americans, but even that was not enough. Even when African-Americans played by the rules and kept to themselves, Whites (as in the case of “Long Black Swan”) could still ruin everything.

    The sheer delight the mobs take in the lynchings in these stories further exposes this monstrous evil. It reveals a culture that is not just involved in the oppression of other human beings, but is defined by it.

    1. I also continue to be shocked about the apparent pervasiveness of white supremacism in the South, although I’m curious about what you mean when you say it was contradictory. In addition to be completely marginalized politically (and socially for the most part), it seems that at the same time African Americans were put in the spotlight to, if for nothing else, give white people something to agree upon and be angry about. I remember reading somewhere this week that lynchings were especially prevalent in times of economic downturn, and especially when cotton prices were low. This seems to say that when times were tough, these white southerners needed something to recharge their willpower or stamina, and deciding to take that out on another group of people seems to have been the consensus, which is incredibly disturbing and depressing, though I’m sure it happens to some effect even today, just with different targets.

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