The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes (1934)

Tags

I’ve always loved short story collections. If you don’t like one, don’t worry, it’ll be over soon! And when a short story is done well, it’s a perfect shadowbox play, each character defined enough to tell a powerful story but with no details or sentences wasted. What moved me to check this book out of the library was this quote from Christopher Emdin, as he explains the reasoning behind his own book’s title:

“These stories revolve around interactions between white and black people that can only be described as unfortunate cultural clashes. These clashes occur when the world of one group does not seamlessly merge with that of another group because of a fundamental difference in the ways they are positioned in the world.” – Christopher Emdin, “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too” (page 15).

Fourteen different short stories in this book, all set in the 1920s – 1930s, all focusing on a clash between white and black, with some serious and some relatively minor consequences. The two that moved me the most were “Berry”, about a hired hand who becomes beloved by the disabled children at the summer camp he works at, and “Home”, about a seemingly terminally ill young man who returns home to Alabama after touring Europe as a jazz musician. I also particularly enjoyed seeing glimmers of global events weave into the settings of the stories, from the difficulty of keeping down a job in the Great Depression to the empowerment of the relative equality African-Americans experienced abroad.

Despite the fact that these stories are rooted in their historical era, the window they provide on contemporary society makes them timeless. “Black Lives Matter” versus “All Lives Matter”: 80 years after the publication of “The Ways of White Folks”, whites and blacks in America are still clashing, and at times the consequences are just as significant. But these wrenching stories exist anywhere there is a clash between groups. How is Islamic extremism not a tragic example of two worldviews quite unseamlessly merging together? Or what about the life I lead? Could one not write a similar series of stories set in Hong Kong detailing the miscommunications between foreign expatriates and their Southeast Asian domestic helpers who are often the primary caregivers of their children?

Buy it on Amazon, check it out from your local library (I use Overdrive), or read another review here by “wordsmith & rebel Sue Katz”.

Advertisements