There is a scene from the 1972 film Cabaret that manages to encapsulate in a few short seconds the very ethos of the movie, it’s dark moral about the dangers of fiddling while Rome burns. The two main characters, Liza Menneli’s anti-heroine Sally Bowles and her love interest Brian (Michael York), are traveling in a taxi through 1930s Berlin. Sally is chattering about the parties they will attend and the fun they will have. Then, out the window of the taxi, the viewer sees it – a man being beaten to death by two Gestapo. The cab’s occupants continue on, oblivious to the horrors happening around them. 
Though the film debuted thirty-eight years after Langston Hughes published his short story cycle The Ways of White Folks, that scene leapt into my mind when I read his matter-of-factly harrowing tales of the Jim Crow era South. In particular, I could not get Cabaret from my mind when reading the story “Home.” In this tale, a young African-American violinist named Roy returns to his Southern hometown after traveling the world as a musician. Though he is at first relieved to be home, especially after seeing the stark poverty of 1930s Berlin, he is swiftly forced to contend with the awful racism of America. The story ends when Roy, forgetting his “place” as a black man in America, greets a white woman on the street who admired his music. For that “crime” a group of white men attack him and beat him to death.  The ending is abrupt and visceral, and as is the case with the beaten man in Cabaret, one is left with the impression that few people in the story even notice the horror of the act that has occurred. Though Hughes’ story cycle is filled with tales of such senseless violence, this one packs a particular wallop because it puts the horror into an international context. By giving us a main character who has recently returned from Germany, Hughes implicitly and explicitly compares the American South at the height of Jim Crow to the crumbling Weimar Republic, firing a warning shot across the bow of the American consciousness that still hits home today.
Hughes’ description of Roy’s adventures in Europe, and especially Berlin, are streaked with sadness and disgust. While there, Roy grows sick – literally and figuratively – on the hypocrisy of playing cheerful music for wealthy people when surrounded by the starving that he claims, from his distant vantagepoint, to be even worse off than anyone at home, black or white . The Germany he leaves behind to return home is rotting from the inside, that much is clear.
But when he is immediately confronted with America’s awful racism, something he had not had to contend with in Europe, his hopes that home will save him and make him well prove false. Roy quickly discovers that the core of his Missouri home is even more rotten than Weimar Berlin, and that just as in Berlin, those in power are happy to use music to pretend that all is well. “This is the broken heart of a dream come true not true,” he laments after a humiliating performance for a mostly-white audience. He later accuses music of being a “streetwalker” that has forced him to become complicit in America’s racism, just as he was complicit to the poverty he saw in Berlin.  Roy’s death only serves to hammer home Hughes’ point: that for all the misery of 1930s Europe, America was even worse.
“Home” is about many things: the horror of racist violence in America, international race relations, the complicated role that jazz could play for black people when music became a way for whites to sweep racism under the table. But from a contemporary standpoint, there is something eerily warning about Langston Hughes’ comparisons between 1930s Germany and the Jim Crow South. When the story was published in 1934, Hitler had come to power, but the worst horrors of the Holocaust were still a number of years off, so the dramatic irony we see today was not entirely intentional. But by seeing events in our own country – events intertwined in our own history, our own heritage – compared to a place and time from which we instinctively recoil, we are forced to confront, just as Roy is, that evil exists even in our own backyard.
It is a lesson that we certainly should not allow ourselves to forget.
 Cabaret. Directed by Bob Fosse. Los Angeles: Allied Artists, 1972.
 Hughes, Langston, “Home,” The Ways of White Folks (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 33-49.
 Hughes, Langston, “Home,” 35.
 Hughes, Langston, “Home,” 40-41.