Authors: Langston Hughes
The Panther and the Lash
Ask Your Mama
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
Montage of a Dream Deferred
Fields of Wonder
Shakespeare in Harlem
Fine Clothes to the Jew
The Weary Blues
Five Plays by Langston Hughes
Something in Common and Other Stories
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
Laughing to Keep from Crying
Not Without Laughter
Simple’s Uncle Sam
Best of Simple (1961)
Simple Stakes a Claim
Simple Takes a Wife
Simple Speaks His Mind
FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
First Book of Africa
The First Book of the West Indies
The First Book of Rhythms
The First Book of Jazz
The First Book of the Negroes
with Arna Bontemps
Popo and Fifina
BIOGRAPHY AND AUTOBIOGRAPHY
Famous Negro Heroes of America
I Wonder As I Wander
Famous Negro Music-Makers
Famous American Negroes
The Big Sea
The Langston Hughes Reader
with Milton Meltzer
Black Magic: A Pictorial History of the Negro in American Entertainment
Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP
with Milton Meltzer
A Pictorial History of the Negro in America
VINTAGE CLASSICS EDITION
Copyright 1933, 1934 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
Copyright renewed 1962 by Langston Hughes
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1934.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hughes, Langston, 1902–1967.
The ways of white folks/Langston Hughes.
PS3515.U274W3 1990 89-40480
Thanks are due the editors of
Esquire, The American Mercury, Scribner’s, Opportunity, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Debate
for permission to reprint certain of these stories first published in their pages.
Display typography by Stephanie Bart-Horvath
To Noël Sullivan
The ways of white folks
ELTON WAS ONE OF THOSE
miserable in-between little places, not large enough to be a town, nor small enough to be a village—that is, a village in the rural, charming sense of the word. Melton had no charm about it. It was merely a nondescript collection of houses and buildings in a region of farms—one of those sad American places with sidewalks, but no paved streets; electric lights, but no sewage; a station, but no trains that stopped, save a jerky local, morning and evening. And it was 150 miles from any city at all—even Sioux City.
Cora Jenkins was one of the least of the citizens of Melton. She was what the people referred to when they wanted to be polite, as a Negress, and when they wanted to be rude, as a nigger—sometimes adding the word “wench” for no good reason, for Cora was usually an inoffensive soul, except that she sometimes cussed.
She had been in Melton for forty years. Born there. Would die there probably. She worked for the Studevants, who treated her like a dog. She stood it. Had to stand it; or work for poorer white
folks who would treat her worse; or go jobless. Cora was like a tree—once rooted, she stood, in spite of storms and strife, wind, and rocks, in the earth.
She was the Studevants’ maid of all work—washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing, taking care of kids, nursing old folks, making fires, carrying water.
Cora, bake three cakes for Mary’s birthday tomorrow night. You Cora, give Rover a bath in that tar soap I bought. Cora, take Ma some jello, and don’t let her have even a taste of that raisin pie. She’ll keep us up all night if you do. Cora, iron my stockings. Cora, come here … Cora, put … Cora … Cora … Cora! Cora!
And Cora would answer, “Yes, m’am.”
The Studevants thought they owned her, and they were perfectly right: they did. There was something about the teeth in the trap of economic circumstance that kept her in their power practically all her life—in the Studevant kitchen, cooking; in the Studevant parlor, sweeping; in the Studevant backyard, hanging clothes.
You want to know how that could be? How a trap could close so tightly? Here is the outline:
Cora was the oldest of a family of eight children—the Jenkins niggers. The only Negroes in Melton, thank God! Where they came from originally—that is, the old folks—God knows. The kids were born there. The old folks are still there now: Pa drives a junk wagon The old woman ails around
the house, ails and quarrels. Seven kids are gone. Only Cora remains. Cora simply couldn’t go, with nobody else to help take care of Ma. And before that she couldn’t go, with nobody to see that her brothers and sisters got through school (she the oldest, and Ma ailing). And before that—well, somebody had to help Ma look after one baby behind another that kept on coming.
As a child Cora had no playtime. She always had a little brother, or a little sister in her arms. Bad, crying, bratty babies, hungry and mean. In the eighth grade she quit school and went to work with the Studevants.
After that, she ate better. Half day’s work at first, helping Ma at home the rest of the time. Then full days, bringing home her pay to feed her father’s children. The old man was rather a drunkard. What little money he made from closet-cleaning, ash-hauling, and junk-dealing he spent mostly on the stuff that makes you forget you have eight kids.
He passed the evenings telling long, comical lies to the white riff-raff of the town, and drinking licker. When his horse died, Cora’s money went for a new one to haul her Pa and his rickety wagon around. When the mortgage money came due, Cora’s wages kept the man from taking the roof from over their heads. When Pa got in jail, Cora borrowed ten dollars from Mrs. Studevant and got him out.
Cora stinted, and Cora saved, and wore the Studevants’ old clothes, and ate the Studevants’ leftover food, and brought her pay home. Brothers and sisters grew up. The boys, lonesome, went away, as far as they could from Melton. One by one, the girls left too, mostly in disgrace. “Ruinin’ ma name,” Pa Jenkins said, “Ruinin’ ma good name! They can’t go out berryin’ but what they come back in disgrace.” There was something about the cream-and-tan Jenkins girls that attracted the white farm hands.
Even Cora, the humble, had a lover once. He came to town on a freight train (long ago now), and worked at the livery-stable. (That was before autos got to be so common.) Everybody said he was an I. W. W. Cora didn’t care. He was the first man and the last she ever remembered wanting. She had never known a colored lover. There weren’t any around. That was not her fault.
This white boy, Joe, he always smelt like the horses. He was some kind of foreigner. Had an accent, and yellow hair, big hands, and grey eyes.
It was summer. A few blocks beyond the Studevants’ house, meadows and orchards and sweet fields stretched away to the far horizon. At night, stars in the velvet sky. Moon sometimes. Crickets and katydids and lightning bugs. The scent of grass. Cora waiting. That boy, Joe, a cigarette spark far off, whistling in the dark. Love didn’t take long—Cora
with the scent of the Studevants’ supper about her, and a cheap perfume. Joe, big and strong and careless as the horses he took care of, smelling like the stable.
Ma would quarrel because Cora came home late, or because none of the kids had written for three or four weeks, or because Pa was drunk again. Thus the summer passed, a dream of big hands and grey eyes.
Cora didn’t go anywhere to have her child. Nor tried to hide it. When the baby grew big within her, she didn’t feel that it was a disgrace. The Studevants told her to go home and stay there. Joe left town. Pa cussed. Ma cried. One April morning the kid was born. She had grey eyes, and Cora called her Josephine, after Joe.
Cora was humble and shameless before the fact of the child. There were no Negroes in Melton to gossip, and she didn’t care what the white people said. They were in another world. Of course, she hadn’t expected to marry Joe, or keep him. He was of that other world, too. But the child was hers—a living bridge between two worlds. Let people talk.
Cora went back to work at the Studevants’—coming home at night to nurse her kid, and quarrel with Ma. About that time, Mrs. Art Studevant had a child, too, and Cora nursed it. The Studevants’ little girl was named Jessie. As the two children
began to walk and talk, Cora sometimes brought Josephine to play with Jessie—until the Studevants objected, saying she could get her work done better if she left her child at home.
“Yes, m’am,” said Cora.
But in a little while they didn’t need to tell Cora to leave her child at home, for Josephine died of whooping-cough. One rosy afternoon, Cora saw the little body go down into the ground in a white casket that cost four weeks’ wages.
Since Ma was ailing, Pa, smelling of licker, stood with her at the grave. The two of them alone. Cora was not humble before the fact of death. As she turned away from the hole, tears came—but at the same time a stream of curses so violent that they made the grave-tenders look up in startled horror.
She cussed out God for taking away the life that she herself had given. She screamed, “My baby! God damn it! My baby! I bear her and you take her away!” She looked at the sky where the sun was setting and yelled in defiance. Pa was amazed and scared. He pulled her up on his rickety wagon and drove off, clattering down the road between green fields and sweet meadows that stretched away to the far horizon. All through the ugly town Cora wept and cursed, using all the bad words she had learned from Pa in his drunkenness.