Langston Hughes (b. 1902-1967) is one of those writers that don’t need an introduction. Mr. Hughes was the author of several plays, dozens of poems, two biographies as well as a slew of other writing projects. Rarely has there been a writer who could deliver such strong wisdom, wit and a sense for justice in his prose. His short stories and poems speak of the nuances and horrors of racial hatred and discrimination. Hughes’ description of a sole black student in the poem “Theme For English B” captures the alienation that’s been magnified by race, and his poem “Madam and her Madam” (where a hard working black maid calls out the white woman she works for after the latter claims there is no barriers between them) speaks of the utter obviousness and destructive naivety whites embodies in a white privileged society. Langston Hughes work spoke of hope and tried to often empower the oppressed in his poems, such as in his poem “Democracy”. In his most famous short story collection, “The Ways of White Folks”, Hughes tells stories of segregation from the point of view of both whites and blacks, the ongoing theme as the title suggest being the ways whites oppress in era of Jim Crow.
One of his most powerful short prose pieces is “Poor Little Black Fellow”, which tells the story of Arnold who at a young age becomes an orphan and is adopted by a white rich couple. Arnolds is black and his lost parents were servants. Arnold, or Arnie as everyone calls him, grows up realizing he is not allowed to do nearly anything. Throughout his childhood and youth Arnie experiences being denied the same rights as the white children. He doesn’t get to join the scouts; he doesn’t get to play with the other children and is not invited to any parties. The Church, which his adoptive parents attend, use him as a symbol of “Christian charity”. Everyone in the story displays a superficial tone of exaggerated niceness to Arnie since they know he can’t be a part of anything. Their kindness is patronizing, not really helping with Arnie´s problems as a toxic bearer of blackness in a world of hidden white oppressions. Indeed, Mr. Hughes shows in this story that kindness can in times be worse than maliciousness. By being nice, the whites are able to deny Arnie any forms of equality or rights. Arnie knows in a way that the kindness is fake, a way to rationalize the racism he faces, but is powerless to say anything. Being extra nice to Arnie does nothing but put Arnie down, since he is not treated as a normal kid. Even worse he is used by his adoptive white parents and their friends and neighbors to make them feel better about themselves, while contributing and continuing the dehumanizing segregation and its hidden ideology.
But once Arnie starts to reach adulthood, Arnie and his adoptive parents take a trip to France. There Arnie starts to become immersed in political activism and social milieu (notably “party’s”). He begins a journey where meeting people for the first time gives him the feeling that the kindness he receives isn’t patronizing and degrading, but actually based on him as a person. He even falls in love with a white French girl and plans to marry her.
He wants to stay in France, where he is treated equally and not shut down by faux-kindness. However, when he tells his parents about this plan, the white rich couple for the first time quit being “extra nice” and show their true colors to Arnie.
Hughes uses France as a strong contrast to the US; while one country features segregation, the other provides hope and rights. Many black intellectuals in fact did move to France before and after the civil rights movement, such as James Baldwin and Richard Wright. While France did offer more rights to people of color at the time, the French did their share of also the separation and exotic-fication of blacks in their society.
The black French writer Frantz Fanon spoke of how, in his opinion, the French didn’t fully allow for blacks to be black in their own way nor did they fully understand what it was like to be “imprisoned in ones skin color”. Indeed, the French had a subtle, but emphatically problematic way of viewing Africa and Africans, believing them to be the “pure emotional ones”. Blacks were categorized at times as all African and there were cases where whites would tell blacks to behave “more African”. Mr. Fanon wrote an entire book on the account of racism in France, most notable the book “Black skin, White Mask”, where he deals with the psychological aspects in racism. Also, the time Hughes is describing in his story is the same time when Algeria was still colonized by France. So while the basic truth Hughes describes in his story ( that France offered some basic rights for the black Americans while the US still lived in the mind set of Jim Crow) this does erase certain more troublesome aspects of the French racial mindset from that time as well. None the less, Mr. Hughes uses this contrast between the two countries (France is more of metaphorical country in Hughes story than the real France detailed by Mr. Fanon) in a clever way to also show the difference between patronizing and humanizing.
“Poor Little Black Fellow” is a great literary document of the 1930’s. It is also a great example of how racism is more and more insidious than the explicit and obvious malicious and cruel actions engendered in the prejudiced social world. It’s also denial, which Arnie´s adoptive parents are guilty of. Prejudice and hatred take different shapes. Just because one is acting nice it most certainly doesn’t mean the actions are not harmful. This niceness, as described by Mr. Hughes, can be a way to exercise ones privilege and of looking down. Making someone less of a person is exposed in a grammar of oppression regardless of ones tone or being “polite” about it. This story is the perfect example of this, and should therefore be read by everybody who thinks everything will be okay if we are just nice to each other. If only it was so easy, but true kindness comes in the form of true equal rights, opportunity and freedom, as Langston Hughes illustrates.