The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Langston Hughes, The Ways of White Folks

1. "Cora Unashamed"

What aspects of the story are emphasized by the choice of title? What is Cora "unashamed" of, and why is this worth remark?

From what point of view is her story told? What is conveyed by the narrator's use of language? (familiar style, e. g. 4) What does he seem to share with her?

Where is the story set, that is, where is "Melton" located? (Des Moines, Kansas City and Sioux City are mentioned; seems to be somewhere in Kansas or western Iowa)

Why has Cora ended up as the servant to the unpleasant Studevants? What have been her past attachments?

What are some aspects of pathos in the account of her one romance? Had she been attached to her lover? What happens to their child? Why is she not permitted to play with the Studevants' children?

What is striking about Cora's reaction to her daughter's death? (8) Are there ways in which her anger anticipates the tale's ending? How are the circumstances in each case different?
(in first case, her anger is directed against God; in the second, toward Jessie's family)

What are some reasons for Cora's attachment to Jessie? Is this attachment mutual? How does she respond to the news of Jessie's pregnancy, and how does she try to help her negotiate her situation?

Later, how does Cora respond to the news that Jessie has suffered a forced abortion?

How do the Studevant's react toward the father of their grandchild? (attempt to destroy his father's business on ridiculous charge, 15)

What signs are given that Jessie's mother is exaggerating her grief at her daughter's death? (healthy appetite before funeral)

What are some unusal features of the final scene at Jessie's funeral? To whom does Cora address her remarks? Why is her speech especially embarrassing to the Studevants?

In what ways is the ending satisfactory for Cora? What does her outburst accomplish?

What is added to the tale by the final paragraph? (family survive without their white employers) What limited victory has been achieved?

2. "Slave on the Block"

Is this story intended to be amusing? (satire of bohemia) What tensions does it explore?

What goes wrong in the patron-model relationship it explores? What attitudes on the part of the white employers create friction?

In what ways does Luther express resistence? (humor in his singing of "Before I'd be a slave/I'd be buried in ma grave," 28, before he models)

What incident causes the final rupture? Who is at fault? What are some indications that the ending is not a sad one for Luther and Mattie?

What is the story's final effect? Does the ending constitute a victory for the story's black characters?

3. "Home"

What are some ironies inherent in the title?

From what point of view is the story told? Where do we hear Roy Williams' point of view?

What are some elements of Roy's life and sensibility which may echo Hughes's own? May the story indicate something of his attitude toward his middle-western roots?

What is Roy's physical condition on his return? What does he manage to achieve that has not been done before in his small town?

What is unusual in his relationship with Miss Reese? What do we know about her age and appearance?

What incident precipitates his lynching? What is her reaction to this, and how is her reaction preempted or misappropriated?

Are there ironies to the fact that Miss Reese's unusual respect helps to bring about Roy's grisly end?

What do you make of the final description of his death, with the roar of their voices breaking into a thousand notes? Of the description of his body as a violin for the wind to play? Are these metaphors beautiful? Grotesque? Do they form a fit ending for this story?

4. "Passing"

What is the tone of this brief story? (sarcastic) Does it treat themes present in other Hughes works? (themes of mulatto, irresponsible father, alienation of "passing," rejection of family)

What is added to this story by its point of view? What seems to be the narrative's attitude toward the speaker's choices, and how can you tell?

What ironies are added by the fact that the speaker is writing to his mother? What has been his background and family situation?

What do we learn about his father's behavior to his partner and their children? Of the job situation for African-Americans at the time?

Is the speaker helpful to his brother and sister? Is he sincerely attached to his family? What will become of his brother and sister? What are we intended to think of him?

Do you think this story is realistic and convincing as a letter? Is this a harsh story? What are some of its sad and pathetic elements?

5. "A Good Job Gone"

To what does the title refer? Are there ironies to the description of the speaker's past job as "good"?

What is the tone of the speaker's memories of his former employer? What is added to the story by the speaker's laconic attitude toward his employer's fate?

What do we learn about the white employer's behavior? What events precipitated his collapse into mental derangement?

To what extent is his unhappy loss of his black girlfriend intended as a form of revenge?

Is this story humorous? horrible? pathetic? How does the ending affect our view of the story as a whole?

6. "Rejuvenation Through Joy"

What are some targets of this story's humor? (expose of cult which appeals to the rich) What issues does it raise? (issues of class, race, chicanery; marketing of sex appeal to lonely older women)

What are some of Hughes's experiences which may have prompted him to write this story? (used his time on Park Avenue well)

What familiar Hughes themes are exploited in the plot? (hatred of sham religion, hypocrisy, misappropriation of black culture)

How is Mr. Lesche characterized? What has been his past? Is there any significance to his name?

What events precipitate the downfall of Mr. Lesche's scheme? Which of these result from the presence of African-American performers at the colony?

What message does the story seem to leave about racial interactions and relationships?

What do you make of the ending statement that some claimed Mr. Lesche to have been a light-skinned African-American in disguise? Would the knowledge that Mr. Lesche was black have altered the interpretation of the story in any way?

What adds humor and slyness to the story's ending? (since victims were rich, they could afford their loss)

7. "The Blues I'm Playing"

What is the significance of the title? How may the story's incidents reflect the experiences of Langston Hughes or Zora Neal Hurston?

What is Oceola's relationship to her patron?

What do we learn about her future husband? Are Mrs. Ellsworth's objections to her marriage shown as rational?

What are their different tastes in music? How does Oceola define the spirit of the blues? (mixture of opposites, 122) How do the women differ in defining the spirit of the music? (Oceola calls for her lover, Mrs. Ellsworth for the stars, 123)

To what extent is the ending a victory for the African-American musician?

8. "Red-Headed Baby"

To what does the title refer?

From whose point of view do we experience this story, and what effect does this have on our understanding of the events it describes and on our responses? (adds suspense, we grasp the situation along with the sailor)

What are the sailor's reactions to the circumstances of his life and to those he meets?

Why do you think Hughes wrote his story from the point of view of someone with whose actions he was unsympathetic?

What details make us sympathetic to the black family and mother of the sailor's child?

Are there elements of the story which resonated with situations in Hughes's own life?

What do you make of the abruptness and anxiety conveyed by the ending? What is the sailor's final response to what he has learned? (pure escapism, no sense of responsibility)

9. "Poor Little Black Fellow"

What judgment is conveyed by this title?

What are some ways this story reflects recent situations in Hughes's life? (his isolation in high school, his relationship with his patron, his trip to France) How does Arnie's situation differ from that of Hughes?

In what way do the Pembertons neglect Arnie's basic needs? Do they carry residual prejudices in their judgment of him? (Mr. Pemberton, "he's a black devil," 151)

Why do they wish to send him to Fisk? What associations do they not wish him to form?

What attracts Arnie in the life and manners of the African-American performers whom he meets in Paris?

What does Vivi believe is different about the respective importance of race and class in Europe? To the extent that Hughes shared this opinion, may this explain in part his long residence abroad?

Is the ending effective? What point does Arnie make in leaving his surrogate parents?

In what way does this ending resemble that of other stories in the volume?

10. "Little Dog"

What is the point of this story? Is the narrator sympathetic to the heroine? What have been some limitations of Miss Briggs's life?

What are we to make of her response to her black janitor? To her loneliness and frustration? To her move to another location?

11. "Berry"

Who is Berry? (Milberry Jones) What has been his past, and why does he end up working in a home for crippled children?

Why does the housekeeper hire someone of a race against which she holds prejudices? How is Berry treated differently than the other employees?

What seems wrong with the care given at the home? To what extent is this story an expose of the mistreatment of children in for-profit care centers?

What is Berry's relationship with the children at the home? What episode causes him to be dismissed? (child falls from chair in eagerness to be pushed)

Which of his opinions forms the title of the book? ("the ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me." 181)

What is the tone of the ending? Is his unjust dismissal a serious loss for Berry?

What conclusions can one infer from this story about the possibility of communication between black and white people?

12. "Mother and Child"

Who are the mother and child referred to in the title?

What is added to the story by presenting it through the lens of hostile gossips? What point of view do most take toward the birth of the child?

Does anyone disagree? On what grounds?

What is the point of view of the narrative voice toward all this, and how can you tell?

What is the significance of the fact that the story takes place at the meeting of the Ladies' Missionary Society for the Rescue of the African Heathen?

Are there ironies in the story's final song? Why do you think we are not given the future fate of the white woman, her black lover, and their child?

In the social world in which Hughes's stories are set, do you think it likely they will survive?

13. "One Christmas Eve"

What is the point of this story? What kind of deferred expectations does it convey?

Why is it important that the story takes place on Christmas Eve? What are some of the reasons Arcie cannot provide a better holiday experience for Joe?

Why does the story end with Arcie's explanation that Joe has not seen Santa Claus but an "old white man"?

14. "Father and Son"

Why do you think this story was placed last in the book? What themes familiar from other tales does it draw together? (son desires unwilling father to acknowledge his paternity; victimized black person fights back)

What is emphasized by the title? What are some ironic similarities between Col. Norwood and his youngest son Bert?

At what point in the situation is the story set? (Bert's return home after long absence)

What are some unsual features of Bert's background and temperament? How is he contrasted with his brother Willie? (221)

According to the definition of Aristotelian tragedy, do you think this story is a tragedy? (according to Aristotle, killing of family members one of the most tragic actions; contains reversal, recognition, fall from high to low status; ending evokes pity and terror)

What has been the relationship between Col. Norwood and Cora? Is their romantic life sympathetically portrayed? What seem to be her attitudes toward him?

Is it important that the Colonel has no other children?

How is the Colonel characterized? What are his responses toward his fathering of five mulatto children? (denial and distance)

What do we know of his past behavior toward black people? (has participated in a lynching) Toward his son? (beating for having called him father in front of white people)

What seem to be his emotions toward Bert and Bert's toward him? (pride, recognition of some similarities)

How is Cora characterized?

Is the story aided by the use of sections, and if so, how? How do we know the narrative voice's response to these events? (section V, 227, 228, admires Bert, celebrates the effect of his viewpoint on others)

What views does the story express about the purpose of religion in slave society? (calms and distracts from reality, 230)

What event precipates the final confrontation between the Col. and his son? (anger of clerk at having her error corrected, intervention of angry white townsmen who goad him on, 233, 235)

In the final scene, why doesn't the Col. kill his son as he has threatened? Is this restraint significant? (maintains basic ambivalence and some form of angry attachment)

Does Bert also feel ambivalence toward his father?

Why does Bert leave the house and then return? (he returns to say goodbye to his mother) What role does his mother play in responding to and interpreting these events?

What is the importance of her final soliloquy to the body of her children's father? What is shown by her final renunciation of the Colonel? (246)

What do you make of the fact that the story ends with a double lynching? What is significant about the fact that the second victim is the passive and unrebellious Willie?

Is this a well-crafted story? What is its final effect?

Which common or recurrent themes bind these stories together?

Which plot motifs seem to reflect events in Hughes's life? Do the stories cast any light backwards on the emotions Hughes experienced toward his father, his patron, and his middle-western origins?

What is the outcome of most white/black relationships, and why? Which kinds of relationships are especially common, and also problematic?

How do these tales present the ties between father and son? Which kind of fathers seem most rejecting? What do you make of the sudden ruptures or explosions which end many of these tales?

To what extent do the black people presented bond together in the face of white hostility? What forms of self-expression or resistence seem available to black people?

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56