Langston Hughes’ “Cora Unashamed” is probably one of my favorite short stories. The Ways of White Folks is probably even one of my favorite short story collections. While doing a bit of recent research, I came across Hughes’ inspiration for writing his first short story and thought it was interesting enough to post. Thanks to Google Books, this excerpt comes from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 14:
I began to turn over in my mind a story that a young lawyer in California, Loren Miller, had told me. He said that in one of the small towns in Kansas where he had lived during his childhood, there had been a very pretty colored girl who, as she grew up, attracted the amorous eye of the town’s only Negro doctor, the town’s only Negro undertaker, and the town’s Negro minister. All three of these men enjoyed her favors. The girl became pregnant. But by whom? At any rate, the doctor performed an abortion on her and she died. The undertaker who had courted her took charge of her body. The minister preached her funeral. Since all the colored people of the town knew that each one of these men had been intimate with the girl, they wondered what would happen at her funeral. All three men were present, but nothing happened. She was just buried.
When I sat down at my well-traveled typewriter and began to write my first short story, “Cora Unashamed,” the material of the factual narrative I’d heard from Loren Mill changed into fiction. The Negro girl became a white girl of middle-class family, whose parents did not want her to fall in love with an immigrant Greek boy whose father ran an ice-cream stand. My story consisted of what happened when this girl’s mother forced her to have an abortion, the girl died, and the Negro cook spoke her piece concerning love and morals at the funeral. None of the situations in my story were as in the real one, but its inspiration came from Loren Miller’s tale. (221)
Watch a scene from the PBS version of the story:
And if you’re too cheap to buy the book, you can begin your free read of “Cora Unashamed” here:
Melton 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 street; 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 Jell-O, 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 stocking. Cora, come here…Cora, put…Cora…Cora…Cora! Cora!
And Cora would answer, “Yes, ma’m.”
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.
More short stories to come. Eventually. Maybe not even the next post, but soon.
Happy reading, y’all.