In Here, Life (Isn’t) Beautiful

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Tinted lithographed postcard. 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. Silhouetted corpse of African American Allen Brooks hanging from Elk’s Arch, surrounded by spectators. March 3, 1910. Dallas, Texas. Penciled inscription on border, “All OK and would like to get a post from you. Bill, This was some Raw Bunch.” Source: http://www.withoutsanctuary.org

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. [1]

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. [2] 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 [3]. 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. [4] 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.

[1] Cabaret. Directed by Bob Fosse. Los Angeles: Allied Artists, 1972.

[2] Hughes, Langston, “Home,” The Ways of White Folks (New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1933), 33-49.

[3] Hughes, Langston, “Home,” 35.

[4] Hughes, Langston, “Home,” 40-41.

7 thoughts on “In Here, Life (Isn’t) Beautiful

  1. When reading the Hughes “Home” and “Father and Son,” as well as “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?” by Touré, I couldn’t help but think of change in perception as a theme . Both of Hughes characters were forced to contend with the a South that couldn’t deal with changes in the nation, vis-a-vis the status of Black Americans in society. While both Bert and Roy grew accustomed to the freedoms their new homes provided, these freedoms lead them both to their unfortunate ends in communities where it’s citizens refused to change the way they saw Black Americans. In Touré’s essay, the fight is how being Black is perceived by Black Americans. As time has distance new generations from slavery and Jim Crow, what defines what being Black is has been challenged by new artists and musicians. These stories show that changing perceptions of what being Black means was and still can be challenging.

  2. In reading Hughes “Father and Son” I too thought about World War 2 and the Holocaust due to the comparable treatment of Jews and African Americans. However, my mind kept thinking about the “Romeo and Juliet” romanticism between Cora and Tom. Have we ever heard of a story where a Nazi and a Jew were in love? What does this mean?

  3. There was a line in “Home” that stuck out to me like a red flag. Immediately following his arrival in Missouri, Hughes writes: “For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his color.” While abroad in Europe, people defined Roy not by his skin tone, but by who he was. Here in American he was defined by the color of his skin is seems. How often today do people “feel their color”? And how might that feeling be different than the way Roy meant it?

  4. Home reminded me of Cabaret as well. The stories of people of color traveling abroad during the early and mid twentieth century, and then returning home, always put American race relations into a more global context. I always felt that this (as well as many others…) was one way that American schools really failed at teaching the early civil rights movement. I never learned these stories in school; Jim Crow, when we did learn about it, seemed to appear in an American vacuum. Not that inequality is a uniquely American problem, but learning how it compared to other countries of the same period certainly gives it greater context.
    Also, I recommend Clifford’s Blues by John A. Williams (http://www.amazon.com/Cliffords-Blues-John-Williams/dp/1566890802). It’s historic fiction, but based on several real accounts. It tells the story of a gay African American jazz musician trapped in Nazi Germany and forced to play for the Gestapo.

  5. What stood out the most for me was how the rigid racial hierarchy of white America really created a minefield of dangers for Black Americans where any misstep invited some form of violent retribution. Richard Wright’s brief autobiographical sketch on his “Jim Crow education” in Uncle Tom’s Children gives a sense of this, but it’s most evident in the story Home. In this one Black man’s seemingly meaningless interaction with a white woman is interpreted as an assault on the town’s racial order and he is ultimately brutally murdered as a result. It really just shows how senseless the whole thing is.

  6. The relationship between racism and sexual anxiety has always amazed me. Throughout history, the Black Male Body has been hypersexualized, feared, and abused. Black males have been castrated, literally and metaphorically, by white America as a way to uphold the white power structure. Still today, I oftentimes hear people talk about their fears of being raped by black men. Why rape, particularly? The fluidity between Blackness and sexualized fear still exists within the fabrics of our “post racial” society.

  7. I certainly noticed the irony after reading your post. It made me think about how I related a lot of moments in the readings to what I learned personally. I really like the last part of your blog that makes the connections about the persistence of evil then and now.

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