Male black identity in selected works by Langston Hughes

Bachelor Thesis, 2013
50 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of contents 

1. Introduction

2. Male black identity

3. Male black identity in selected works by Langston Hughes
3.1.The drama Mulatto
3.2.The short stories “Simple speaks his mind”
3.3.The prose Not without laughter

4. The influence of education on male black identity
4.1.The drama Mulatto
4.2.The short stories “Simple speaks his mind”
4.3.The prose Not without laughter

5. Identity crisis within male black identity development
5.1.The drama Mulatto
5.2.The short stories “Simple speaks his mind”
5.3.The prose Not without laughter

6. Langston Hughes’s works Mulatto, “Simple speaks his mind” and Not without laughter in the historical context

7. Conclusion

8. Bibliography

9. Declaration

1. Introduction

Throughout many years, African Americans have been struggling in defining and constructing their identity, especially male African Americans had problems to build up self-esteem and to reassure their cultural masculinity, which was undermined by white men. Not only does history confirm this struggle but so does literature. In literature, many different aspects about male black identity and their struggle for identity can be found. However, one of the most important authors in this context is Langston Hughes. In his works, he focuses on the urban life of African Americans and the problems they had to face because of oppression and racism evoked by white Americans. Furthermore, Hughes wanted “to record and interpret the lives of the common black folk, their thoughts and habits and dreams, their struggle for political freedom and economic well-being” (Jemie: 1). By doing so in his writings, he took this struggle for and negotiation of racial identity to another level in developing a unique form of expression.

In this thesis, I will concentrate on three major works by Langston Hughes: Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South, “Simple speaks his mind” and Not without laughter. All three texts display emotional conflicts and the struggle for identity of African American men with “simplicity and depth” (Tidwell: 3). Furthermore, all three protagonists have a rather low status in society, which contributes, according to Langston Hughes, to their authenticity since they are the ones who represent the African American and thus their pursuit of identity (cf. Tidwell: 3).[1]

Moreover, I am going to begin with a general overview of the male black identity and the struggle for an African American male perspective in a culture which is dominated by white American men. Afterwards, I will transfer this concept of male black identity to the three selected works by Langston Hughes and analyse in how far these texts engage in constructing their main characters in similar terms. The next significant aspect will be concerned with the question in how far education is perceived as a part of this male black identity and in how far it supports the development of an African American male identity. When having discussed the influence of education in the protagonists’ male black identity development, I am going to turn to the topic of identity crisis. In this context, I will analyse to which extent an identity crisis can be seen as an effect of the male black identity development and I am going to illustrate its importance for the development of the three protagonists. Besides, I will contrast the three protagonists in their behaviour and attitudes in order to point out similarities and differences regarding their male black identity, how they are influenced by education, and their identity crisis. The main focus will be on the protagonists’ black male identity development and to which extent they are concerned about their African American origins and identity. Furthermore, I am going to underscore in which ways the protagonists develop and construct their African American identity and if they experience any support or guidance by society or their families when doing so.

The last decisive aspect will be to embed the three texts into the historical background. Here, I am going to depict in how far historical references can be found in the three works and if these references contribute to the plot or if they affect the story in any way. After doing so, I will summarize my considerations and draw a final conclusion from my analysis considering the individual chapters in order to explain in how far an African American masculinity can be generated and to which extent Langston Hughes negotiates circumstances such as education and identity crisis influencing male black identity.

2. Male black identity

“African American men have experienced forms of political and social emasculation” (Leak: 24).

African American men[2] have been in a constant struggle for identity, equality and power because their history is characterized by oppression and the supremacy of white men. The oppression by white men made African Americans believe that being black is “a sign of subordination” (Japtok: 10). Therefore, African Americans were forced into a scheme which defined their identity by means of stereotypes constructed by white Americans (cf. Japtok: 10). Furthermore, African American men could not actively construct an identity for themselves during the time of slavery. Their cultural and political emancipation was impeded by the white cultural supremacy, which marked African Americans as inferior.

With the beginning of slavery, their cultural heritage and humanity was taken away from them; they were treated like being invisible in society (cf. Leak: 5). Since these both elements were withdrawn from African American men there was no adequate basis anymore for building up an own identity or for developing self-esteem. White men began to suppress African Americans, especially African American men because they were afraid that their women would be attracted by African American men or that they could be more powerful than themselves. Therefore, white men began to establish the idea of “the black male as beast” (Grant: 2) and as “sexual predator” (Wright/Schuhmann: 9). They developed, by means of writings and discourses, a social construct of stereotypes against African American men because they thought they needed to protect their wives, families and society against the “uncontrollable black male […] violence” (Pochmara: 19). In fact, white American men used African American men as a medium for their white self-imagination and a projection surface for their fears (cf. Wright/Schuhmann: 9). By telling African Americans that the white race[3] is superior, they tried to conceal their anxieties and to protect their own families, lives and also their manhood. Hence, the suppression of black male identity was influenced by white supremacy and prejudices. African American men constructed their identity upon myths of being intellectual inferior and “uncontrollable deviant” (Leak: 60). Besides, the process of defining their male black identity is “not entirely controlled by black people” (Japtok: 10) because their consciousness and understanding of their identity is influenced by the white society. Thus, scholars have argued that the ego of the African American man begins to collapse and he “stops behaving as an actional person” (Fanon: 132).

Throughout centuries the situation African American men faced will most likely have produced sentiments of anger and fear due to the oppression of white Americans, especially during slavery. In this period, African American men could not protect their wives and families from being abused by white men. They were not able to enact their traditional male role; instead they suffered from a “black male emasculation” (Mostern: 98), which suppressed their male identity and took away their self-determination. As a consequence, the relationship between African American men and women was distorted because African American men had the feeling that white men took away their wives and thus their manhood. They had to accept that they are powerless against white men and their white patriarchal system in which African Americans had to live. Thus, African American men’s identity was not determined by their cultural heritage but by white projections and the white patriarchal system. They slowly resigned and accepted the “elision of the black man’s identity” (Grant: 29) and the supremacy of the white culture to their black culture.

A significant fact which contributed to the elision of a concept of black manhood was the illustration of African American men as “black rapists” (Mostern: 98) and “animalistic brutes” (Elam: 94) in language as well as in paintings or literature. The white society was of the opinion that African Americans were a race without any civilized attitudes and that they should be subdued by their “white male betters” (Grant: 2). Intimidated by the white dominant culture, some African American men tried to assimilate and to adapt the attitudes and manners of white men hoping to be accepted by the white society. Instead, they were seen as a threat to the patriarchal order and therefore were lynched or treated even worse (cf. Smith: 59).

With the rise of the Jim Crow laws[4] in 1876 those assimilation processes of African American men to white culture were not possible anymore. The Jim Crow laws created a racial segregation within society that forbade African Americans several actions which whites were allowed to do. An African American man was under no circumstances allowed to look or to touch a white woman or to enter a house, owned by white Americans, through the front door. If African Americans disobeyed those rules they often were lynched (cf. Spickard: 246). Once more the African American masculinity was repressed and so an African American man had difficulties in “finding a comfortable space in which to define his manhood” (Grant: 4). Even though the Jim Crow laws claimed to establish equality between African Americans and white Americans, they in fact did not. African American could not get the same education, employment and rights as white Americans. This is also due to the fact that the “dominant mythology of the aggressive black men” (Pochmara: 11) continued to exist in society. Even though it seemed like African American men could now build up their own identity, it was still very difficult for them because they developed a “double consciousness”[5] (Allen: 29). They tried to define themselves and their identity by looking at the white culture and projecting the stereotypes stated by white Americans on themselves (cf. Allen: 29). However, African Americans realized that they had to fight for their own identity and cultural heritage, especially African American men felt the strong need “to revitalize and revalidate their gender identity” (Pochmara: 70). Even though African American men suffered from several assaults on their humanity and their manhood (cf. Allen: 43), they did not want to accept the inferiority that was put upon them long time ago. After having suffered from a “social and psychic drama of black male masculinity in the American cultural context” (Reynolds: 182), African American men wanted to construct their identity without any influence of the white American society (cf. Japtok: 13).

It becomes evident that when referring to African American men, sexuality as well as the illustration as being a rapist is often emphasized. Because there are already several discussions about this link, I am going to take a closer look at different aspects in the development of black male identity. Aspects like education and the identity crisis while developing a black male identity are important as well, especially the theme of education of African American men is not often discussed in literature even though it can have a major impact on the development of a black male identity as I will show with regard to the three selected works by Langston Hughes. It is an important element when analysing the African American men’s way of defining their identity as, for example, Hughes does in his writings. Just as education is a part of black male identity in literary texts, the identity crisis is. Referring to Hughes’s writings I am going to analyse, that it is a stage, which was necessary for African American men to overcome in order to regenerate their male black identity after slavery and oppression.

In order to underline in how far education and identity crisis are important for the black male identity development in literature, I will refer to three texts written by Langston Hughes, which are the drama Mulatto, the short stories “Simple speaks his mind” and the prose Not without laughter. In these three texts each protagonist has a different attitude towards being black and being an African American man who tries to define himself. All of the protagonists cope in a different way with their problem of identity but in the process of defining their manhood, all of them receive education and undergo an identity crisis.

3. Male black identity in selected works by Langston Hughes

The struggle of African American men for their male identity is a central topic within African American history but also within their literature. Langston Hughes was one of the most important African American authors and made male black identity a subject of many of his works. In the following chapter, there will be a detailed analysis of selected works by Langston Hughes with regard to male black identity. Additionally, it will be highlighted in how far the different protagonists define their own black masculinity in a society which is controlled by white Americans, thereby commenting on the cultural history of suppression outline above that provides the background to their struggle.

3.1. The drama Mulatto

Langston Hughes’s drama Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South [6] was written in 1930 and first performed on Broadway in 1935. Mulatto was one of “the longest – running black authored play on Broadway” (Elam: 87). Not least due to its negotiation of the tragic mulatto and its didactic purpose. The drama is about Robert Lewis, who is a son of mixed blood of his mother Cora and the white plantation owner Colonel Norwood. Robert has to deal with several racial issues and social restriction because he is a biracial. However, this play portrays Robert’s strife for equality and his own identity.

The play not only illustrates the frustration of an African American man living in a white male dominated social order but also the behaviour of white Americans towards black men and especially biracial persons. Robert illustrates a perfect example of a person of mixed blood because he has the “emotions of a black but the cleverness of a white” (Allen: 35). This becomes obvious throughout the play when Robert cannot control his temper and is disrupting the existing social order. He does not want to accept the white supremacy and the social hierarchy anymore and therefore is violating it on purpose in order to claim his rights. The first incident underscoring this behaviour is when Robert is in the post office and is “talking back to a white woman” (Mulatto: 25). This scene indicates that Robert is confused about his male identity because of being a biracial, hence being half white and half black. However, he decides on acting like his white half and not like his black half (cf. Mulatto: 31). Harry and Michele Elam argue that Robert tries to demonstrate his “own masculine authority” (Elam: 92) by behaving like white Americans and claiming the same rights and a fair and equal treatment.

Another significant scene regarding the disruption of the social order is Robert’s use of the front door (cf. Mulatto: 31). When he enters the house through the front door, Robert is violating the plantation order, the unwritten rules concerning African American behaviour and the Jim Crow laws. He knows that he is not allowed to use the front door because it is a privilege reserved to white Americans. Nonetheless, Robert seems to ignore this rule and shows his disrespect towards the white society and its rules. His act enhances his non-acceptance of the status he is given because he is a person of mixed blood. He not only disrupts “the established place for [African – Americans] within the hierarchy of power” (Trotman: 133) but also tries to provoke white Americans. Robert is challenging white society and authorities such as his father Colonel Norwood. In this context, Robert’s provocation becomes apparent when he is grinning while saying “[h]ouses have front doors” (Mulatto: 31) and when he “walks proudly out the front door” (Mulatto: 15) while his father is standing next to him.

Furthermore, the front door functions as a symbol of equality for Robert because it illustrates the boundaries between African American and white American men, which Robert tries to overcome in order to achieve his place in the social hierarchy. It is not that Robert wants to be white; he just wants to be treated with the humanity a white person is treated with. By saying that he likes “to kill all the white men in the world” (Mulatto: 39), he underlines that he does not like the behaviour of white American men at all. Therefore, his endeavour is not to acquire the status of whiteness “but for manhood” (Elam: 95) because Robert desires privileges and rights of masculinity which are reserved for white men (cf. Elam: 95). He is almost obsessed with claiming his rights and getting rid of this mulatto status. This is underscores by several of Robert’s statements like his claims that he is “not a nigger” (Mulatto: 39) and that he is not “bowing down to white folks” (Mulatto: 32) anymore.

Another central conflict in Robert’s struggle for his male identity is the “violent rejection” (Sollors: 321) by his father Colonel Norwood. Robert knows that his father does not want to accept him because he is a biracial but Robert is not ashamed of being a person of mixed blood. He does not see himself as a biracial person but he just does not want to be “confined to a racial definition” (MacLaren: 64). However, Colonel Norwood sees Robert as a “nigger” (Mulatto: 39) and as “one of Cora’s children” (Mulatto: 38) even though he has once been his favourite child (Mulatto: 30). However, Robert called Norwood “papa” (Mulatto: 29) in front of his white friends so that Norwood beat him. This is the turning point in the relationship between the two men. Being a white men, Norwood has to respect and follow rules within society as well so that there is no “personal realm in which he can admit his parentage to Robert” (Elam: 90). He cannot admit it in front of society neither can he admit it to himself. Robert is angry about the rejection by his father because he sees himself as “a Norwood – not a field-hand nigger” (Mulatto: 34). He knows that Norwood denies him because of the social conventions but nevertheless Robert insists on his birth right and “on white paternal obligation and rightful blood inheritance” (Elam: 87) because he wants to be treated fairly and respectfully without being reduced to his race. Moreover, Robert claims to be half white not only because he wants to have the same privileges but also wants to have the acceptance and recognition by his father. Robert wants Norwood to acknowledge that he has the same male identity as the Colonel because he is his son even though he is of mixed blood: “Don’t I look like my father? Ain’t I as light as he is? Ain’t my eyes grey like his eyes are?” (Mulatto: 53).

Since Norwood refuses his son, Robert gives up longing for his father attention, respect and acknowledgement instead he decides to challenge Norwood and his status as the white patriarch by aggression and violence(cf. Elam: 91). Moreover, Robert wants to demonstrate his masculinity and to highlight that he is stronger and more powerful than Colonel Norwood. This can be seen when Colonel Norwood and Robert have a discussion. Robert loses his temper and cannot control his actions anymore. Norwood still is denying to be his father and when Roberts wants to leave through the front door, Norwood calls him a “black bastard” (Mulatto: 40). Robert responds to this statement in a violent and aggressive way, twists his father’s arm and suffocates him (cf. Mulatto: 40). In this context, Robert demonstrates that he is physically superior to his father now and that his black male identity is more valuable than his white male identity: “He’s dead. The white man’s dead. […] I’m living” (Mulatto: 41). This quotation underscores that Robert feels superior to his father and “all the white men in the world” (Mulatto: 41) but also that he does not really see himself as white either even though he is insisting on being half white. It is the “ultimate assault” (MacLaren: 65) on the plantation and social order that Robert, as a biracial kills, his white father Norwood. This again emphasizes that Robert is not afraid of the consequences but that he is longing for acceptance and respect in the white society.

Another consideration in this context, is that Robert is insisting on his half white because he actually wants to be accepted as a person of mixed blood without being classified into either African American or white American. However, when lynching his father, Robert acts like a white men and once more illustrates that he should have the same male privileges as they have. Besides, it also enhances that the racist and prejudiced conditions that Robert faces in society, even in his own father, make him act like that in order to be able to free himself and assert his own identity within society.

To summarize, one can say that the drama Mulatto depicts the racial issues a biracial person has to cope with when living in a white dominated society. It also exemplifies that Roberts tries to underline his male power by violence and the breaking of rules within society in order to illustrate his masculinity and superiority. Furthermore, Robert is not willing to accept the social differences, especially concerning manhood, and therefore is confused about his own male identity. This “exercise in social reparations is inherently connected to his perceptions of masculinity” (Elam: 92). Furthermore, the rejection of his father Colonel Norwood supports this struggle for his male black identity even more.

3.2. The short stories “Simple speaks his mind”

The book “Simple speaks his mind”[7] consists of several short stories and was the first of five books Langston Hughes wrote about his fictional character Jesse B. Semple. The stories about Jesse B. Semple, known as Simple, are based on Hughes’s columns in the Chicago Defender[8] and were published in 1950. The short stories about Simple, especially the collection “Simple speaks his mind”, have been very popular and successful publications. This success can mainly be attributes to the character of Simple, who talks about popular issues of the day that is the status of women, government, taxes and Jim Crow laws but also about race identity and what it means to be an African American man.

Simple, being an African American men living in Harlem, displays his views and opinions on a broad range of different topics so that the reader is “exposed to Simple’s life and loves in cumulative detail” (Jemie: 141). In his conversations with his counterpart Boyd, Simple elaborates on his life as being an African American men and his attitude towards white Americans. He wants the white society to recognize “what this Negro problem is all about” (Simple: 124). Simple faces oppression in his everyday life because he is coloured but nevertheless, he is proud of being an African American men (cf. Dickinson: 97). He also talks about the deplorable social and political condition of coloured people and which problems they have to face (cf. Simple: 106). Since Simple embraces life to the fullest in his social contacts, he is talking about his problems and social and political problems in a humorous way. However, this is not to say that he becomes blind to the seriousness of racial problems and “to the problems surrounding him” (Simple: 7). In this context, Simple reflects on his own life in which he has “been abused, confused, misused, accused, false-arrested, tried, sentenced, paroled, blackjacked, beat, third-degreed, and near about lynched!” (Simple: 93). These experiences had a significant influence on Simple’s masculine identity: He feels emasculated by white society because he is treated like an object or animal, which is not worth to be integrated into society: “but I do not know no place in the country where I am welcome” (Simple: 49).

This racism in his everyday life shapes Simple in his male black identity. Moreover, the only place where he feels protected and safe is Harlem (Simple: 39) because he knows that he belongs to this coloured community. Here, people do not see him as a “varmint” (Simple: 49) and he feels integrated into society. He knows that “white folks is scared to come to Harlem” (Simple: 40) but he as well is “scared to go around some of them” (Simple: 40). This anxiety of white Americans to come to Harlem supports Simple’s understanding of his own male identity and emphasizes that he can only imagine a male existence in harmony with himself and his race in Harlem and not in a white neighbourhood. In this context, Simple feels superior to the white society because they are scared of the coloured community and not vice versa. In Harlem, Simple is confident in his masculinity because he knows he is respected for being an African American man.

Furthermore, Simple’s masculine identity is strongly linked to the identity of African American men in general. He identifies with the entire community and sees himself and his identity as a part of it. Simple is affected by the discrimination against African Americans and also the violence against his race has a significant influence on his identity and personality (cf. Hortense: 91). Hence, Simple has a strong “race-consciousness” (Emanuel: 159) and does not want the African American men to be portrayed as a fool. Simple, and the short story as such, sets out to re-evaluate and reconstitute a cultural idea of African Americans that, as I have shown above, was dominated by white projections of inferiority; Simple wants to reverse this idea so that he can find and define his identity without being influenced by stereotypes about his own race. He is criticizing white Americans and their racism against African Americans from which he and his people have to suffer (cf. Simple: 29).

It is important to note, however, that Simple does not hate white Americans nor is he a “hatemonger” (Dickinson: 97); he simply cannot understand their attitude because they “socialize with dogs – yet they don’t want to socialize with [Simple]” (Simple: 118). Once more, he feels inferior to white Americans because they see him as less important and valuable than a dog. For this reason, Simple has an “understandable distaste for white people” (Gibson: 188) because his male identity is undermined by white Americans using him for his purposes without accepting him in society. He is exposed to the racial injustice of white supremacy but he cannot do anything against it because as he says “white folks are setting on top of the world” (Simple: 142). Simple knows that he cannot change the circumstances he is living in but he does not want to be defeated by racism of white Americans (cf. Harper: 10). Since Simple is an idealist, he still has the vision of a good life in which he is surrounded by “love, respect, attention” (Simple: 57). Besides, he dreams of equality amongst all people without being reduced to their colour. However, to Simple the most important aspect in his attitude towards white Americans is that they have “got a double duty” (Simple: 144) to the African American. White Americans did not treat them right in the past years but, according to Simple, they should at least start to treat them fairly and respectfully now (cf. Simple: 144). Furthermore, Simple is of the opinion that white Americans also “ought to make up for how they have treated [African Americans] in the past” (Simple: 144).


[1] It is important to mention that there also had been many decisive African American women writer affecting the African Americans identity. However, I am going to concentrate on the male perspective of an African American identity by focusing on Hughes’s works and thus leaving out the women writers.

[2] In this bachelor thesis, I am going to use the term African Americans instead of Negros or Blacks because these terms are not used any longer in order to describe this ethnic group. Generally speaking, these terms are not politically correct, condescending and racist.

[3] The term race usually denotes an ethnic group within a society such as Latins or African Americans. The groups are distinguished by referring to their physical appearance and character traits. However, nowadays not only these aspects are included in the definition of race but also aspects like their culture. In this context, the term race will mainly be applied to the ethnic group of African Americans or white Americans. (cf. Spickard: 18/19).

[4] The Jim Crow laws, which came into force in 1876, described the official segregation of African Americans and white Americans in the United States. These laws had an important influence on social life (cf. Spickard: 246).

[5] The term of double consciousness can be traced back to W.E.B. Du Bois, who stated that African Americans need to be proud of their culture again. Furthermore, despite the attacks on their culture and personality, African Americans should develop more self-confidence and see themselves and their culture in a positive way. W. E. B. Du Bois was a famous African American scholar and intellectual, who was of the opinion that African Americans defined themselves by means of two different social worlds; the white and the African American world (cf. Allen: 29).

[6] In the following I am going to abbreviate Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South to Mulatto. Additionally, I will use Mulatto for text references of the primary text Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South.

[7] In the following, I am going to abbreviate “Simple speaks his mind” to Simple when quoting the primary text.

[8] The Chicago defender is a newspaper which was founded in 1905. It is published weekly and is nowadays one of the most popular newspapers in the United States. In times of Segregation and Jim Crow, the Chicago Defender was mainly read by African Americans (cf. Bloom: 11).

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Male black identity in selected works by Langston Hughes
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