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Hughes, Langston. (1994). Not Without Laughter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 304pp.

Grade Range: 10-12

Genre: Historical Fiction

Summary & Critique:

    Complete with a forward by Arna Bontemps and an introduction by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes' Not Without Laughter offers an intriguing depiction of the life of an African American family in Kansas. Growing up in a house full of hard-working women, the youngest character of the book, Sandy, learns many lessons of life. He must grapple with prejudice, lack of social status, the need to earn money at a young age, and family conflict. The book focuses on what it means to belong to a community, emphasizing family, neighbors, and hospitality. The characters go out of their way to take care of each other, working all the time to support households of multi-generations. Sandy lives with his aunt, mother, grandmother, and father at one point of the story, but is reared by his grandmother the majority of the time. After the death of his grandmother, he learns what it feels like to be wealthy, living with his well-off Aunt Tempy. Sandy concentrates on his education, has an opportunity to expand his already intelligent mind, and becomes the first member of his family to pursue higher education.

    Hughes shows readers the importance of a strong family foundation in this novel; however, he also gives readers a realistic view of the backbreaking work many poverty-stricken people had to endure in order to give future generations a chance to succeed. Hughes reminds us throughout the novel that although the characters were always aching and tired at the end of each day, they eagerly looked forward to a brighter future and never forgot to laugh.




    Race, Ethnicity, and Culture

    Challenges and Triumphs

    The Individual vs. Society

    Love, Sex, and Romance

Author Profile:

    Langston Hughes, one of the outstanding writers of The Harlem Renaissance movement, began his life in Joplin, Mississippi in 1902. His works included not only novels, but also poetry and plays. He attended Columbia University where his first publication was in The Crisis, a magazine organized by the N.A.A.C.P. with W.E.B. DuBois as the founder. Many readers and writers proudly named him the "Negro Poet Laureate." He died on May 22, 1967 in Harlem.

For additional information concerning Langston Hughes:

Media Connections:


    Furious Flower: A Video Anthology of African American Poetry, 1960-95 (1998) An in-depth account of 25 African American poets complete with their work, performances, and interviews.

    The Color Purple (1985) A detailed depiction of the struggles which come with being an African American woman in a life full of hard work, subservience, and the tyrannical influence of men.

    Bamboozled (2000) A chilling and critical view of minstrelsy- the history and modern day aspects of this degrading stereotypical tradition. The movie includes historic film clips of examples of minstrelsy and society's response to it as an entertaining mockery of an entire race.

    Struggles In Steel: The Fight for Equal Opportunity (1996) A historical glimpse into the backbreaking steel industry, looking into the African American struggle for equality. This documentary includes aged footage and photos of historical events.

    Glory (1989) The film portrays the hardships of the first completely African-American volunteer company in the Civil War. A heart-wrenching struggle of equality, prejudice, and survival.

    To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) A powerful story about an African American man wrongfully accused of rape who is defended by a white lawyer in the south during the Depression. The characters fight to survive and to protect the ones they love in this controversial situation.

    Tour of Sacrifices of U.S. Capitalism and Democracy (1998) Explores America's dependency on slavery. Slavery's role in America has influenced such things as economy, culture, government, etc.

    I'll Make Me a World (1999) This compilation of African American art in the 20th century includes the history behind it as well as informative segments about the artists.

    Lone Star (1996) In this small town drama, interracial relationships are examined as well as the relationships between family members over generations.

    Day of Independence (2003) A Japanese family is imprisoned an internment camp during WWII. The trials and tribulations the family is forced to endure display how much courage and hope can do for individuals taken captive by their own country because of their heritage, with no way of knowing what tomorrow may bring.

    Chicano! History of the Mexican-American Civil Rights Movement (1996) A documentary covering the Mexican-American community's fight for equal rights in America.

    Eat Drink Man Woman (1994) Three daughters experience the trials and tribulations of being young adults while living with their father, a retired chef. Regardless of their daily crises, Sunday dinners bring the family together and help them realize what is truly important in life.


    The Wonder Years- any episode (family relationships, growing up, historical events)

    The Cosby Show- any episode (family relationships, growing up, multi-generations inhabiting the same home)


    "Laughing Song." Lyrics written by minstrel performer Same Devere, sung and recorded by George W. Johnson in 1985- the first recording of the Blues. It is an ironic song describing the stereotypical traits of African Americans, yet the singer continues to insist on emphasizing his own laughter as he mocks his own ethnic stereotypes.

Online Resources

Related Texts

    Alexie, Sherman. (1995). Reservation Blues. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 306pp. Alexie writes a realistic, humorous, and tragic account of growing up on a modern day Native American Reservation. This is his story of education, discrimination, and community.

    Danticat, Edwidge. (1994). Breath. Eyes, Memory. New York: Soho, 234pp. A breathtaking portrayal of a family of women and their relationships with each other, their homeland of Haiti, and the violation of women everywhere. The connection of family throughout the generations is quite powerful, emphasizing the interdependency family relationships create in trying times.

    Morrison, Toni. (1974). Sula. New York: Knopf, 174pp. A unique glimpse into the lives of two African-American women growing up together and going their separate ways, yet remaining connected even in death.

    Kincaid, Jamaica. (1985). Annie John. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 148pp. Kincaid writes a detailed semi-autobiographical story about a girl growing up, facing conflict with her mother, herself, and her surroundings.

    Petry, Ann. (1991). The Street. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 435pp. This chilling tale portrays a desperate, inner-city mother who struggles to protect her son from the dangers lurking outside their door. Ultimately, the fight for survival in a cold world proves too difficult for the African- American boy and his mother on the streets of America.

    Chesnutt, Charles W. (1969). The Marrow of Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 329pp. This story examines the social boundaries southern communities set up to separate whites from blacks. Many significant themes are addressed such as sacrifice, survival, prejudice, and censorship of history.

    Mazer, Anne (Ed.). (1993). America Street: A Multicultural Anthology of Stories. Persea Books, 152pp. Over a dozen short stories written by such authors as Naomi Shihab Nye, Langston Hughes, and Gary Soto detailing the universal trials and tribulations of adolescents.

    Dickens, Charles. (2001). Great Expectations. New York: Dover, 380pp. Pip, an orphan, matures physically and emotionally after meeting a convict and a rich widow.

    Clinton, Hillary. (1996). It Takes a Village. New York: Simon and Schuster. 336pp. Clinton discusses how society can work together to help children grow and develop.

    Chang, Pang-Mei. (1997). Bound Feet and Western Dress. New York: Doubleday. 217pp. A true account of a Chinese woman defies her family's traditions and becomes successful.

    Rosenberg, Liz, ed. (2001). Roots & Flowers: Poets and Poems on Family. New York: Henry Holt. 244pp. An anthology featuring poems about family.

Teaching Ideas

    (1) "Stories From Me" After reading a semi-autobiographical novel, the students can create their own autobiographies in the classroom. The students can use arts and crafts, photos, souvenirs, etc. to make accounts of important events which have unfolded in their lives. These autobiographies can serve as a database from which to collect ideas during the entire semester should the students have trouble finding topics about which to write.

    [Summarized from "Stories From Me" by Sandra Thomas in Ideas Plus Book 13.Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp. 27-28.]

    (2) "Diaries For Active Reading" The students have a chance to be vocal and at the same time connect to the character in the novel they are reading when they create a diary. In this diary, the students will pick a character from the book and write daily journal entries discussing how they believe the character is feeling, what they are thinking, etc. As the events unfold within the text, students can expand the inner dialogue of the character that the author left out. The students will be encouraged to decorate the diaries in a way that will display the character's traits as well as the student's personality.

    [Adapted from "Diaries for Active Reading" by Sabrina H. Williams in Ideas Plus Book 13. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp.22-23.]

    (3) "Finding Poetry in the Music of the Day" Have students bring lyrics to class from a song which contains themes from Not Without Laughter. If they struggle to find lyrics, offer them a list of possible themes and bring in music choices from which they can select. Have each student make a copy of the lyrics for the rest of the class and discuss the connections. Assign the students an essay in which they compare and contrast their own song with"The Laughing Song" written by Sam Devere, a minstrel performer. Include in the essay how the songs make the listener feel and why, as well as the importance of context, mood, etc.

    [Adapted from "Finding Poetry in the Music of the Day" by Karen Kurzman in Ideas Plus Book 14. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, pp.25-26.]

(Review written by Christine Derbyshire and edited by Jennifer E. Moore)