Beethoven and Resistance at “Home”

Langston Hughes

“And the roar of their voices and the scuff of their feet were split by the moonlight into a thousand notes like a Beethoven sonata.” [1]

In the conclusion to “Home,” Langston Hughes compares a lynch mob to a piece of music written by Ludwig van Beethoven.  Though it is not clear to which sonata Hughes alluded, it seems appropriate to provide a sample of the third movement of “Moonlight Sonata.”

The frenzied pace clearly reflects the chaos surrounding Roy Williams’ lynching.  Still, I was struck that Hughes used Beethoven to describe a heinous display of racial violence.  But, after considering W.E.B. Du Bois’ concepts of the Veil and double consciousness, Hughes’ intentions in “Home” become clearer.

Hughes opens the essay with Roy returning home to Missouri after an extended musical tour of Europe.  After getting off a Pullman rail car (“something unusual for a Negro in those parts”), Roy stood at the train station, “slim and elegant…surrounded by his bags with the bright stickers.” [2]  When he greeted an old friend who was white, Roy took off a glove and shook his hand.  His white friend, however, pulled back his hand.  “Roy had forgotten he wasn’t in Europe, wearing gloves and shaking hands glibly with a white man!” [3]  Finally, when Roy was preparing to leave the station, he noticed a group of white men eying and judging him.  “His skin burned.  For the first time in half a dozen years he felt his color.  He was home.” [4]

This scene is a prime example of double consciousness and the Veil.  While in Europe, uncontrolled by Jim Crow, Roy did not have to think twice about riding alongside whites or how to shake a person’s hand.  But, upon his arrival in Missouri, the mean looks reminded him that he would need to scrutinize how he acted in front of white people.  In essence, Europe allowed Roy to temporarily lift the Veil, but his reception at the train station forced it back over his face.

Later, the Veil distorted Roy’s view of a white woman attending his performance at a local church.  “See them looking proud at me and music…over the head of the white woman in the cheap coat and red hat who knows what music’s all about…Who are you, lady?” [5]  Soon, however, the woman introduces herself and compliments Roy’s ability; eventually, Miss Reese invites him to play at the local high school.  He agrees, but the students who saw him perform eagerly told their parents about the “uppity” black man who delighted their white female teacher with his ability. [6]

Roy’s experience at the train station fueled his initially sarcastic view of Miss Reese.  The animosity that whites showed to Roy there embittered him about the treatment of African Americans.  In turn, this shut him off from the reality that some whites were able to see past the Veil.

The essay’s conclusion stresses, however, that many whites were not able to see past the Veil, especially when Roy innocently forgets the social rules dictated by Jim Crow.  While walking through town one night, Roy and Miss Reese strike up a conversation about music.  But, just as he did at the train station, Roy removes his gloves and shakes her hand.  This leads a group of whites to assault Roy, who they believed raped the white woman.  Eventually, they take him to the woods where the essay tragically ends.

Then, why did Hughes reference Beethoven to describe the barbaric lynch mob that stripped Roy of his humanity?

Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven

I believe that he is suggesting culture can serve as a form of resistance to Jim Crow.  Throughout the essay, Roy’s musical talent is indisputable.  It allowed him to travel the world.  He saw that he could be considered an equal if not for the Veil that distorted white Americans’ views towards African Americans.  His actions, his appearance, and his talent—all of which elevated Roy above many whites in Hopkinsville—however, made whites anxious and desperate to demonstrate their dominance.  They hoped to instill fear in black Americans to prevent them from violating Jim Crow social rules in the future.  As a result, this anxiety—stoked by whites’ own fears—took the form of a lynching.  But, by using Beethoven to frame such a violent act, Hughes turns the tables on the lynch mob.  Instead of describing Roy’s fear as the lynch mob surrounded him, Hughes referenced culture to stress Roy’s (and perhaps Hughes’ own) resiliency and resistance in the face of racism.

[1] Langston Hughes, “Home,” in The Ways of White Folks (New York: Random House, Inc., 2011), 49.

[2] Ibid., 36.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 44.

16 thoughts on “Beethoven and Resistance at “Home”

  1. I do think that Roy’s musical talent was meant to symbolize a form of resistance. Art and music has long been considered one of the marks of humanity, and music allowed Roy to retain his humanity in the face of death. At the same time, this portion of the story reminded of Nazi concentration camp’s orchestras populated by imprisoned professional Jewish musicians. Certainly any position in Nazi concentration camps was horrible and any “privilege” within the concentration camps was fleeting. These musicians were slaves, forced to play when and where the Nazi’s wanted. Still, many musician prisoners were “saved” because of their ability. Early on, the orchestra’s primary role was to provide marching music for prisons leaving and entering for work. Later in the war, the orchestra played while SS officers herded victims into gas chambers in an effort cover up the Nazi’s crimes. Eventually, the music stopped and most of the musicians fell victim to the Nazi’s death chambers. I think that in Roy’s case, music held a ambivalent place, both as a savior and grim reaper. Roy was able to experience more than his white and black neighbors true, but his status as a musician also left him vulnerable to violence in the end.

  2. Look at the program Roy plays at his church concert. Hughes writes that Bach, Franck, and Brahms were in the lineup, but he does not match the composers with the pieces. Lots of composers wrote Ave Marias and Sonatas in A, but few wrote their own “Gypsy Dances,” the last selection in Roy’s program. I thought of Brahms’s pieces, officially known as the “Hungarian Dances,” which were inspired by the composer’s many visits to Eastern Europe. Brahms frequented the taverns of the lower classes as often as he could, and there he heard the weary, crying sounds of the gypsy violin. I kept hearing Hungarian Dance No. 5 while reading this story:

    Brahms tried to capture the wanderer’s soul by putting the tune to a full orchestra:

    Hughes knew exactly what he was doing when wove “Mr. Brahms” throughout the story. We hear in this music small remnants of one of the most oppressed groups in Europe: the Romani, victims of centuries-old hatred for their way of life–and in some cases, the color of their skin. They continue to be lynched. Culture most certainly has its own underlying messages, and here I think Hughes used music in a brilliantly tragic way to tell the story of something so severe, and still so common during his day.

    1. Patrick, thanks for posting the videos and sharing your knowledge about classical music. Your analysis of Roy’s concert program is much appreciated and has led me to re-read the section. More importantly, it’s a great lead-in to highlighting contemporary ethnic violence in Europe.

  3. The incorporation of the music adds a very unique component to “Home.” I don’t know if I necessarily agree that Roy playing the music in of itself was an act of resistance. To some extent, maybe the fact that Roy was an excellent musician appears to be an act of defiance in terms of it defying the stereotypes and expectations that whites had for African Americans. However, I do appreciate the earlier comment that mentions how music to Roy was both a saving grace and the key to his ultimate death. His musical abilities did indeed lift the veil, but ultimately played a role in his death.

    1. I’m inclined to agree, Kahla. One of the lines that stood out to me was, “For the first time in half a dozen years, he felt his color. He was home.” It was interesting to me the role that the idea of “home” played in each of the stories, but particularly this one. Roy felt the uneasiness of being in a place where we was not wanted because of the color of his skin, even though that same place was home, where he should have been most comfortable. Perhaps the act of learning to play music, traveling the country, and subsequently traveling the world was in some ways Roy lashing out at the oppression he found when he was home?

    2. I agree with you Kahla that playing music was not an act of resistance itself, but rather that Roy was such a skilled musician. Unable to continue with school, music was one avenue that was open to Roy. Traveling around the South as a modest musician did not bring him the trouble being a trained musician, well practiced and familiar with great classical masterpieces. His skill threatened the given social order. I thought it was interesting how music could help overcome the differences between different social groups. Music is a universal human experience. Miss Reese is able to appreciate Roy as a musician, even if he is black. Despite lying on opposite ends of the racial spectrum, they both have music in common. In the end, it was not enough to overcome the prejudices of the entire town.

      1. I’m not sure, I feel that Roy learning and playing classical music is a form of resistance. The white townspeople I think certainly thought this to some extent –Roy shaking Miss Reese’s hand was the “final straw” for them after he returned from Europe and played the concert. The concert showed that he could rise above the oppression in his hometown and accomplish more than the white residents ever would. I’m specifically thinking about minstrel shows and the depictions of African Americans leading up to the twentieth century. After the Civil War, African Americans increasingly performed in minstrel shows. Roy’s talent in classical music goes against the racist caricatures of African Americans and shows he could use his talents elsewhere. His playing asserts the notion that talent is not bound by race. I also feel the choice of the violin is deliberate on Hughes’ part. Sure the violin is a classical instrument but the fiddle is the same thing, only played differently. Fiddling is not seen as advanced or as cultured by many people as the violin. Electing to play the violin over the fiddle shows a choice in transcending the culture Roy was born into in Missouri where fiddling likely would have been a common talent, among white and black citizens alike. Even if Roy did not intend for his performance at the church and school to be an act of resistance it became one because I feel that it was viewed as such by the people of his town.

  4. This was my favorite reading for this week. I think you raise some interesting points about the use of music, Eric. I found that Hughes wove music into the story in such a way that it almost felt as though Roy was removed in some ways from his situation. I think the fact that he was increasingly ill throughout the story also contributed to this feeling. It felt to me almost as if at the end that Roy was anticipating and accepting his fate.

    Patrick, thank you for adding that interesting tie to the Romanis. Hughes does seem to make a connection to general human oppression. In the beginning of the story he describes how Roy begins to get sick as he encounters the poverty and mistreatment of the poor in Europe. When he comes home, he sees more of the evil within people. At first music is a way for him to experience the beauty life has to offer, but it also ties in with the suffering as Jillian pointed out. And in the end evil seems to win out over good.

  5. I love your analysis of Hughes’ use of Beethoven in this story. It seemed as though Roy’s death was inevitable and the point in which the mob beats him for shaking Miss Reese’s hand is equivalent to a climax in a Beethoven symphony. I think Roy himself right from the beginning was a threat to all whites who believed in Jim Crow because his very being contradicted what the social norms/stereotypes were- blacks could not and should not be educated, civilized, well-dressed, charming, you name it.

    1. Araya, I agree with your interpretation of Roy as a threat because he contradicted stereotypes given to African Americans. But I still ultimately wonder if there was significance in Roy’s decision to return home to die, other than wanting to see his mother again. Roy had achieved success and freedom in Europe and yet chose to return to a land of discrimination and oppression on his death bed. There is definitely a reason other than simply returning home for this decision, but I am not sure what to make of it.

      1. That is an interesting question, Michelle. Perhaps he assumed that since he now had the musical training he was unable to get at home, he could return and be better treated; He wouldn’t be another “uncultured” black man. He did try to shake a white man’s hand before realizing that he was back in the same racist social climate he had been before leaving. It is possible that he had believed that African Americans were mistreated because they were perceived as belonging to a lower status, and his talent could prove white assumptions wrong. In this way he relates to Bert from “Father and Son,” as well as John from “Of the Coming of John,” both of which leave their home to get an education. Bert has the slight hope that his white father would treat him as an equal upon coming home, while John (and the rest of his community) originally believes that his education would make him a respectable and valuable member of the town. I think all three stories portray the hope that African Americans could rise from their status by proving their talent and intelligence. But Jim Crow era whites had no intention of letting blacks be treated as equals, regardless of their skill and knowledge.

  6. This week’s readings really made me realize how little I know of the Jim Crow era in the south. For someone to be punished for such small things as taking off one’s gloves and shaking a white person’s hand (as in “Home”) or not referring to a co-worker as “Mr. so-and-so” (as in “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” in Richard Wright’s “Uncle Tom’s Children”) seems so foreign and bizarre in this day and age.

    1. I agree, Megan. When I think back to my high school US History class, I don’t remember spending much time on these issues. Another aspect that came up in the readings this week was the connection between racial tensions and sexual tensions. Do you think the misconception about black men as sexual predators is still present?

      1. I think that misconception is still present to this day. If you think about the black hand incident that occurred in SUNY Oneonta, you could see that the black men on campus, at that time, were heavily targeted.

    2. I had the same enlightenment, Megan. I was appalled at how little I understood the issue, even though I was aware of its existence. I actually thought the writer, Langston Hughes, compared the lynch mob to a piece of music to show how normalized this type of ending was. We were reading about a person. A person who is attacked, and the writer starts referencing music like it’s not that big of a deal. I felt this was an intentional tool used by Hughes to shock and disgust the reader. “This is horrible. This is normal. What about it?” Like a challenge to go out into the real world and change the narrative.

  7. I was struck by that fact that Roy went home because he was feeling sick and it seemed wanted to die at home or see his mother before he died. As he stays at home and learns to live again with the racism he gets sicker and and sicker. What ends up killing him is not his disease but the racially motivated violence. I wondered what Hughes is saying with that. Does the illness manifest because Roy is seeing behavior in Europe that he associates with his home? I don’t know know, but I think something is going on there that I can’t figure out.

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