Not Some Poor Little Black Fellow
Langston Hughes’ Relevance to Our Moment
NOT SOME POOR LITTLE BLACK FELLOW
Langston Hughes’ Relevance to Our Moment
Z. K. Paschal
To hear many “antiracists”—black, white, or for that matter orange—tell it, you’d think that life as a black American was nothing but misery and pain perpetrated by the Man™. You’d think that the proverbial boot was still crushing our collective necks and draining us of any will to live and strive to better ourselves. “Of course, most Black folk cannot do any better than they do,” they say. “This whole society is against them. What do you expect?” “This society is irredeemable and filled with racists who strive to keep Black people and other People of Color™ down.”
This is what many people honestly see when they look at us. At least, that’s what it sometimes sounds like. It’s fine for them to feel this way, as far as it goes, but they go too far when they try to “help” us by, for example, eliminating standardized tests with the implication that the tests keep us out of top universities because they are too hard for our Little Black Brains. Oh, woe! Oh, shame! We remain America’s indelible stain to this day. That any of us succeed at all is, apparently, either a pure miracle or the sole result of white folk being nicer.
Langston Hughes, one of my favorite writers, wrote a story almost a century ago about white folks being nicer that I want to explore here. It’s a story about “nice” bigotry, the bigotry of benign condescension. This type of bigotry can come from left and right alike, but today is most prevalent among more progressive and left-leaning folks. A white supremacist might baldly state that he thinks that black minds are inferior, but a progressive might just, you know, dumb-down math or remove advanced math classes altogether because those poor black kids just can’t seem to keep up. I much prefer the former insult because it’s direct and honest. The latter is clothed in compassion but is actually far more destructive.
So, let me sketch the outline of Hughes’ story. It’s called “Poor Little Black Fellow” and it appeared in The American Mercury in November 1933 (on pages 326-335). It was republished a year later in Hughes’ short story collection, The Ways of White Folks. That title has always tickled my more irreverent side. It’s kind of racist itself, when you think about it. It very much feels like something an older family member might say. You know, those older black folk who just know what white people are like. Considering what they grew up with, I understand the line of thinking, but even back then it was never that cut and dried. In any case, I’ll give the basic synopsis of “Poor Little Black Fellow.”
In a rich town inhabited by Rich White Folk (RWF), the Negro servants of one particular family die tragically and leave behind a son, a “poor little Black fellow” as he is often referred to in the story. The RWF take in this boy and “treat him as their own,” only not really. The boy is constantly made aware that he really isn’t their own and the story conveys the impression that others were looking down their possibly aquiline noses at him.
Now, this story takes place in a time where segregation was a reality and miscegenation was a completely taboo and illegal thing. Thus, the boy grows up, does well in school, goes through puberty (in a nearly invisible way because they weren’t letting any white girls near that minefield), and is on the brink of going to college in a society that is decidedly against him.
The few times he was sent to be among his own people, he hated it. He had nothing in common with them as a result of having been enculturated by the RWF. In short, he was culturally different, an understandable fact considering his background. While generally more comfortable around what he knew, through all this time, the family he was brought up in treated him more as a problem to solve than a real family member with his own thoughts and feelings.
In an attempt to do right by him, the family decided that, before they sent him off to a Negro college, they would take one final trip with him. However, they’d heard that there were many “unsavory types” in their destination of choice, Paris. So, they overloaded the itinerary in an attempt to keep him “safe.” Nevertheless, it is in Paris that he acts out a bit for the first time and actually ends up leaving the RWF before the end of the trip. A lot happens in just a few days, enough to make the patriarch of the family think that the boy was behaving like a NIGGER and was ungrateful. As for the young man, he found a world where his color didn’t color everything negatively and even caught the interest of a pretty girl. To be honest, I would have left as well.
Now, that’s the shortened version and again, I do suggest reading it. However, what sticks out to me here is that the same condescension and dehumanization with which the RWF regarded the boy they adopted is present in many of today’s “friends of the Negro” that Malcolm X warned about decades ago, whether they know how they are behaving that way or not. That is: they speak in a way that is ostensibly pro-black but behave in ways or push for things that are decidedly not.
To be sure, the RWF took in a boy that they didn’t have to take in and gave him quite a few advantages in life. They had no obligation to do so. Indeed, it was their Christian faith that led them to do so. If their charity had manifested itself differently, we perhaps would have nothing to discuss.
However, the family failed to see the boy as an individual and a human, and the town in which they lived basically did the same. The “Poor Little Black Fellow” was treated as a burden, in essence, his skin was a barrier to “real life” even though he showed himself to be quite capable. For he didn’t rest on the laurels of his adoptive family’s affluence but instead worked his butt off. Still, the young man spent most of his life feeling alienated or pitied because of his poor, poor state, what with being a Negro orphan and all. No one would be real with him. It is telling that once he got a taste of a world in which he was not an object of pity or contempt, he wanted to break free of those who had taken him in and other “kind” people as well.
In essence, he experienced the condescension ensconced in the Southern phrase, “bless his/her heart,” a phrase whose implication has always been insulting. His was a life of constant, “bless his little Negro heart, the poor dear.” No one took any real pride in him doing well or growing. No one genuinely respected his feelings and ideas.
I’m sure many modern-day black folk have experienced such condescension. I myself have experienced occasions where others seemed surprised at my intellect or that I didn’t speak like I was from the ‘Hood, as though “real” black people can only come from the ghetto. I can imitate that way of speaking, but it’s never really been my vibe. Yes, some slang from the ‘Hood is clever and fun. I’ll pepper my writing or speech with it. It’s spicy…I do love it.
In a similar vein, there were times where we learned about slavery at school and I could feel the awkward and uncomfortable stares from some of the white kids who were wallowing in “White Guilt.” It wasn’t a majority of the students and I would say that some performances of white guilt were done ironically, but they were still done. It was something that I’ve never needed nor desired. My ancestors’ issues are not my own.
While there was no Jim Crow now, there were occasional black jokes, some from white folk trying to be funny but mostly failing, and some from black folk in a self-deprecating way, jokes about improper grammar and whatnot. I remember many of the jokes quite clearly. However, this was something that I couldn’t ever really relate to as someone who “talked white,” never mind the fact that I’ve heard plenty of white folk speak how we think Black folk should speak and vice versa.
People’s racial expectations were all very limiting to me, just as they were to the young man in Langston Hughes’ story, and by Sophomore year in high school, I was pretty much done with it. I just started doing what I wanted, experimented with clothing and interests and got called a “freak” by a more “down” black kid that I used to play basketball with on the school team: “You’re not one of those freak people now, are you?” he asked. All of which is to say that in America, many of us, even our fellow black people, believe there is one universal black experience and way of being and that all black folk are beholden to it. As such, we should all be angry or hurt all the time since the narrative says that nothing has changed for us.
Furthermore, we should supposedly resent white people’s success and pressure them to give us what we need so we can succeed, all the while ignoring that there was black success even when things were far, far worse (and the fact that the current black poverty rate is around 18%, higher than other groups, but certainly not definitive of the experiences of the other 82% of us). I haven’t been held down or back by a white person at all. What’s more, we know certain immigrant groups do far better economically and educationally than the supposedly superior white folk. Does being white still benefit some white people in their interactions with racist white people? Sure. I just have doubts about how systemically racist America is these days.
Nowadays, we’re supposed to care about “microaggressions,” which is something I hated from the very beginning of its rise to prominence. We are the descendants of people who persevered and you’re letting words stop you? Really? Though, to be fair, many people who do that grow up with the idea of inferiority pushed on them by the adults in their lives in explicit and implicit ways. Thankfully, despite not having the best familial situation myself, I never was taught that I was inferior due to this beautiful brown skin of mine. So, I can see that someone is telling lies. But, why do so many of us subscribe to them? I have some ideas on this but that is for another essay.
Today’s version of the Rich White benefactors from Langston Hughes’ story is the white friend who (annoyingly) apologizes for being white and for the Sins of White Folk. You know, because it’s white folk holding me back with my two degrees, my teaching experience, and the various things that I have accomplished for myself, sometimes with assistance from others of various colors and ethnicities. Such apologies betray a sense of white superiority, as does the “deeply concerned” belief that black folk and other minorities cannot succeed because of “the system.” Worse still, these apologies suggest that I couldn’t have done anything without the White Man condescending to helping me, poor sorry soul that I am. Society is so stacked against those like me, it is only when white folk selflessly relinquish power that I can have any agency or responsibility, that oft forgotten flip-side of having agency.
How could any black person approach the world with confidence if they buy into these ideas about helpless black victimhood and enlightened white benevolence? I’d have to think that every good grade that I ever got, every instance where someone praised me, and every interview out of which I got a job, came from “help” mingled with condescension and my own merits had nothing to do with it. Am I forever to take comfort in knowing that at least I can be a diversity hire or a pity case? If so, what do I have of my own to take any pride in?
I don’t need the pity. I need opportunity only. I come from a stock that fought and clawed to help make America closer to the ideals it was founded upon. My skills, education, and networking will take care of the rest, since after all there are no longer any prejudicial laws holding me back. This is the crux of the matter. If I believe that my getting anywhere requires white folk giving me everything, why should I strive for anything? If I believe that my being black is an automatic handicap, what do I have to be happy or proud about and what hope do I have?
Imagine pushing this idea on children, children whom I, an educator, might have to teach someday. Imagine the uphill battle this will create for both of us. The ideas we push on our children will determine a lot for them. Call “whiteness” bad and oppressive and then say that being on time or “worshipping the written word” are “white” things, and what happens? Yet many good-hearted white folk are pushing such messaging, as they push for lower educational standards to “help” us. In the end, whatever you believe about yourself will likely come true. If you are taught to believe that you cannot, then you will not.
To conclude, I’d wager that the people that antiracists condescend to are much more capable than the antiracists would allow, just as the poor little black fellow condescended to by the RWF was much more capable than they allowed. I’d say to the antiracists and other ‘kind” folk that if you find yourself pitying us, stop. See us as people first. Is my skin a clear signifier of who I am, my beliefs and self? It’s part of it, but would you rather it be the whole? What about when my “lived experience” doesn’t jibe with the narrative? You can see the absurdity here.
I implore everyone, from progressives to conservatives, to look at black people as individuals, not representatives for their whole race. Afford us the same opportunity that has so often been afforded to white folk. Expose yourself to different types of people, listen to other narratives. Expand your view and, dare I say it, reach for that old colorblind notion that was pushed for much of my childhood. It was never about erasing people, but rather letting them define themselves. As they say, get off your high horse. Just let us be human.
Z. K. Paschal is an American ex-pat who lives with his wife in Japan, where he was born to parents who were in the military. An educator and musician, he has contributed non-fiction to Wrong Speak and is an aspiring writer of fiction. His first degree was in philosophy, a field in which he continues to dabble. He hopes to use his talents for good and is willing to write on nearly any topic on the feeblest of provocations. Follow him on Twitter.