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Langston Hughes's stories deal with and serve as a commentary of conditions befalling African Americans during the Depression Era. As Ostrom explains, "To a great degree, his stories speak for those who are disenfranchised, cheated, abused, or ignored because of race or class." (51) Hughes's stories speak of the downtrodden African-Americans neglected and overlooked by a prejudiced society. The recurring theme of powerlessness leads to violence is exemplified by the actions of Sargeant in "On the Road", old man Oyster in "Gumption", and the robber in "Why, You Reckon?"
Hughes's "On the Road" explores what happens when a powerless individual takes action on behalf of his conditions. The short story illustrates the desperation and consequent violent actions of one man's homeless plight on a snowy winter evening. "He stopped and stood on the sidewalk hunched over- hungry, sleepy, and cold- looking up and down." (Hughes 90) Here, Sargeant is without the basic necessities of life- shelter and food. Sargeant, hopeless and starving, wanders the lonesome streets and happens upon a church. However, the reverend of the church denies Sargeant access. Mullen explains further- "And in "On the Road" an unemployed black man, given a quick brush-off by a high-toned preacher, breaks into a church" (81) When the Reverend refuses to house him, Sargeant's desperation and powerlessness leads him to commit a rash action- tear down the church door to a street of on-lookers. Shortly after, Police come to take Sargeant away and put him behind bars, where he reminisces on his actions. Had Sargeant simply had the basic means of survival, food and shelter, he would not have had done out of desperation. In other words, Sageant's lack of security- food, shelter, and warmth, lead him to take violent actions in attempt to obtain it.
The short story "Gumption" underlines the rash actions that can be taken by powerless individuals. When the Depression Era rolls around, most are left without jobs, including old man Oyster and his son. Charlie Oyster is assigned road work under the pretense of there being no "office jobs here for negroes." (Hughes 98) Indignant, old man Oyster storms the WPA office in rage and demands for his son to receive a job befitting his qualifications. Instead of listening, the white man calls Oyster a communist. Hughes explains further- "Now, old man Oyster ain't never had no trouble of any kind in this town before, but when them cops started to put their hands on him and throw him out o' that office, he raised sand." (Hughes 99) Old man Oyster's desperation and hopelessness over his son's injustice lead him to storm a government office in protest, something he had never done before. As a result, Old man Oyster and his son end up in jail. This would have been prevented if Oyster's son was simply assigned the tasks he was capable of. However, racism and prejudice stood in Charlie Oyster's way and caused for regrettable and violent actions to be taken on behalf of his father.
"Why, You Reckon?" examines the desperation of details two poverty-stricken African-
Americans seeking food and shelter on a cold night. An exchange between the two men occurs- "Man, ain't you hungry? Didn't I see you down there at the charities today, not gettin' nothin'- like me?" (Hughes 66). The two African American protagonists agree and later show anger at the white people; "These here white folks come up to Harlem spendin' forty or fifty bucks
and don't care nothin' 'bout you and me." (Hughes 66) One of the protagonists suggests to the other that they rob a white man for money, as they have nothing to lose. Once the white man is captured and robbed, he exclaims "Gee, this was exciting." (Hughes 70) The African American says that he would be happy if he had the wealth of a white man and later muses "What do you suppose is the matter with rich white folks? Why you reckon they ain't happy?" (Hughes 70) The two African- American men would be overjoyed if they simply had the means of necessity- food and shelter. However, they don't; thus their desperation is the sole cause for their violent crime.
Hughes' stories illustrate many of the problems that African Americans faced during the depression era, ranging from prejudice and discrete racism to a general air of hopelessness and despair. The inveterate theme of powerlessness leads to violence is epitomized by the actions of Sargeant in "On the Road", old man Oyster in "Gumption", and the robber in "Why, You Reckon?"
Hughes, Langston. "Gumption." Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. 95-100.
- - -. "On the Road." Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. 90-94.
- - -. "Why, You Reckon?" Short Stories: Langston Hughes. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996. 66-71.
Mullen, Edward J. Critical Essays on Langston Hughes. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1986.
Ostrom, Hans A. Langston Hughes: a Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993.
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"Langston Hughes- Theme Analysis." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Apr 2014