Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,

2003.

 

Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

August Wilson, Fences

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume, 1986.

Summary of Work
Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono are at Troy’s home after working at the Sanitation Company, and they are discussing Troy’s recent decision to apply for a job driving the garbage truck rather than staying on the back and lifting the bins. Bono thinks that he is going to get himself and other black men fired, but Troy disagrees, and says that what he’s after is to have them change the job description so everyone can drive the truck. His wife comes in and they start discussing the past and then their son, and Troy is upset that his son Cory is being recruited to play football at college. Troy remembers back when he played baseball (it’s how he met his wife Rose) and was denied the chance to play professionally due to segregation and injustice. Rose tries to tell him that times have changed, but he won’t hear it. As he rants about Selkirk and Jackie Robinson, he gets drunker and drunker, and when his wife tells him that he’ll drink himself to death, he speaks the famous line “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (10) as he tells about when he had pneumonia and beat death.

His older son Lyons stops by and asks for ten dollars, and Troy, after being upset at Lyons and telling him that he needs to get his life in order rather than just playing music and relying on others, he hands all the money from his paycheck to Rose, and she gives Lyons ten dollars from the money. The next morning, when Troy comes down wanting to have Cory work with him on the fence, Rose tells him that Cory is at football practice, and Troy is upset again. He’s also upset that his wife is playing the numbers. Then Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was injured in the war and is now mentally ill, walks up carrying his trumpet and basket of fruits and vegetables that he tries to sell. He thinks Troy is mad at him for moving out, but Troy insists to Gabe he isn’t upset. Rose tries to feed Gabe, and he tells Troy that he knows Saint Peter has Troy’s name in the book but not his own. When he leaves, Troy starts feeling guilty again about taking the disability money Gabriel got so they could buy the house.

When Cory gets home, Troy starts in arguing with him. Cory asks if they can get a TV, and Troy lectures Cory on how much money it takes to roof the house and to keep it up and make sure that everyone is fed and taken care of. Then, when they start talking about Cory’s football scholarship chances, Troy tells him to forget it because the white people aren’t going to let him get anywhere, so instead he should be focusing on his job at the A&P so he could actually earn a living doing something. Two weeks later, Cory is still more concerned with football than chores and work, and takes off to play. Just after, Troy comes back with Bono, ecstatic because he just got the job as a driver for the Sanitation company. Bono asks him if he even has a license, and Troy states that he doesn’t need a license.

Lyons comes back to return the ten dollars he borrowed, but Troy won’t take it, telling him to save it for the next time he needs to borrow money. So Lyons gives the money to Rose. Gabriel also comes in, having been he thinks, in his mentally ill state, chasing Hellhounds away from St. Peter’s gates. He asks for a sandwich, and when Troy starts up again about family matters, Rose shuts him down and says that Troy is to stop it about Gabe and his landlord Miss Pearl and about Cory, and he is to sign the papers allowing Cory to play when the college recruiters come, and that’s the end of it. Then they get talking about parents, and Troy tells of how he was from a family of eleven, and his mother ran off from her evil husband, who was a sharecropper. Troy was just eight and thought his mother would come back for him, but he didn’t. When he was 14, he had a girlfriend, and he was going to sleep with her in a field, when his father came upon them and whipped him badly. Troy, thinking that he was done, went looking for his father after that and found his father having sex with the girl, so he got upset with his father, and his father beat him unconscious. He awoke to the family dog Blue licking him, but he couldn’t see anything. After that, he figured he couldn’t go back home, so he walked all the way to Mobile and started stealing to survive. It landed him in jail for fifteen years, and that’s where he learned to play baseball and where he met Bono.

When Cory comes back home, Troy tells him that he’s in trouble because he found out that he quit his job at the A&P and he hasn’t been keeping his chores up. Cory tries to explain that he can’t do both work and football practice, and Troy tells him that’s his first mistake, strike one. He is to go and get his job back and quit the football team. Cory refuses, and tells his mom so. That afternoon, when Troy and Bono and Cory are out, they say they don’t know why Rose wants the fence put up. Bono suggests she wants it up to keep everyone close to her. When Cory leaves into the house to get something, Bono confronts Troy about his affair he is having, saying that Rose is a good woman and he shouldn’t be doing it. Troy, says he loves rose but can’t shake this other girl loose, and Bono replies that he doesn’t want to see Rose hurt.

They’ve had to go get Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, and it cost 50 dollars. During the time that Troy is explaining this to Rose, he also lets her know that he is going to be a father: the woman he is having an affair with is pregnant. To get Gabe away from the situation, she tells him to go get the watermelon in the fridge that he can eat and sell. Rose, upset that after eighteen years of love and work in the marriage, even knowing it was tough and wanting to give up often, Troy would cheat on her.  He tries to explain that he felt like he was standing in the same place for eighteen years and wanted a change, and she tells him that she’s felt the same way but never acted on it. Troy goes to hit Rose, and Cory sees and grabs Troy from behind and hits him. Troy tells him that that’s strike two.

Six months later, Rose confronts Troy about having signed a form to put Gabe in the hospital, and tells him that he’ll have to pay for that. And she also tells him that Alberta, the woman with whom he had the affair, died in childbirth. Troy leaves and comes back with his daughter, asking Rose to help him raise the child. She tells him she will raise the child, but that he no longer has a wife. Two months after that Troy comes into the house one day and when Cory tries to get past him without saying excuse me, an all out fight ensues. Troy tells Cory that he’s raised him and given him all he has because it is his responsibility, and when Cory gets upset and says that he’s done nothing but bully everyone and abuse them into fear of him, Troy gets ready to beat him. Cory picks up Troy’s bat and starts swinging it at him, but cannot bring himself to hit his father even as he is backed into a corner. They fight over the bat, and Troy is stronger than Cory. He gets it and tells him to get out of the house and never come back. Troy starts talking about death and preps to swing the bat at that fastball on the outside corner.

The final scene is the family getting ready to go to Troy’s funeral. Cory is a corporal in the marines, Lyons is just out of jail for the funeral before he has to do nine more months, and Gabriel is still in the hospital. Raynell, Troy’s daughter, is elementary school aged now. When Cory tells his mother that he doesn’t think he’ll go to the funeral because he can’t have his father still hanging over him, she tells him he will go and that he is just like his father, that for all that he did wrong, Troy was a good man and that he should respect him and recognize that he gave the best he had to him. She says that she loved him and lost touch with him, but Raynell is a saving grace and she intends to give her the best she has to offer as well. Afterwards, when Cory goes out, Raynell follows him and they sing the song their dad used to sing, Dog Named Blue, together. When they all walk outside together, Gabriel tries to blow his horn, which has no mouthpiece now, to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritual dance and tells Troy that it’s the way to go.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The Pittsburgh Cycle of plays is an attempt to center marginalized black history and experience. This play explores what it is like to live in the North in a city where black people are better off than in the South, but still not allowed full participation in society. Jim Crow laws are fully seen in the play with the discussion of baseball and segregation as well as Troy trying to get a promotion. The struggles of employment and poverty stem from this, which is evidenced by Troy’s discussion of his thieving in order to survive in the North until after he went to prison for fifteen years. The struggles of black family life are also a focus, with not just Troy’s family in the North, but his young family life in the South. Troy’s pride is that he has a good job and owns his home for his family to live in, and he guards money viciously because of his knowledge of what it is like to be without. That fear is what drives him to treat his son the way he does and to deny him the opportunity to attend college on scholarship: he doesn’t believe that anything has changed or will changed in white-black relations. It is a similar fear, a fear of staying in the same place, that leads Troy to be unfaithful, and it costs him everything. The plays end shows a recognition of human weakness and a recognition of the love and progress that is being made from generation to generation, as the struggle is passed on and the history of that struggle lives on through Troy’s children.

For a discussion of Jim Crow laws in Fences, see the study guide I am published in through the August Wilson Society.