Power struggles define who we are as a person. In the short story “Father and Son” by Langston Hughes, the tense racial relations in the South explain the differences in power dynamics between a black man and his white father. The father feels that he must constantly prove himself to the white esteemed individuals in the town and conform to the society’s standards surrounding white authority. This pressure for the father to act a certain way is evident in the way that he treats his black son. From reprimanding his son at gunpoint to whipping him as a child, it is clear that this story was written at a time when black individuals had little to no voice in society. This story uses many methods to suggest that differing power dynamics are unavoidable between father and son and between black and white.
The story begins with the white father struggling about his emotions surrounding his youngest black son’s homecoming. He thought it was a sign of weakness to miss his black son, so he waited several hours to approach his son. The father noted that “a certain vibration shook him from head to foot” (para. 20) when he saw his son for the first time in six or seven years. His son was surrounded by many other black workers on the plantation, and appeared to carry himself as a highly esteemed gentleman. Later on, in the paragraph, it goes on to say that the father debated, “how he would walk through this group like a white man” (para. 20). What does this even mean? During the early 1900s this prejudice was still heavily prevalent in society. White men have a higher sense of authority and pride when walking amongst black people. In contrast to this, black men experience an inferiority compared to their white counterparts.
A white male plantation owner was known to have complete authority over his black indentured servants on the “Big House Plantation” (para. 4). This power dynamic focuses on using language such as “Negro” and “colored” to describe the inferiority that blacks experienced during this time in history. There was never a time to question the plantation owner’s authority or embarrass him in front of white townspeople. One particular example of this was when Bert (the black son) was a little child and he ran up to his father saying, “Papa, dinner’s ready” (para. 60). He was scolded, beaten, and told never to do something like that again. Although the father’s actions were not right, he was trying to make his son understand the respect that was demanded of white folks.
Not only did this describe a power struggle, but the language in paragraph 20 such as “admitted,” “even to himself,” and “handsome and mischievous” describes the father’s speech and attitude toward the black workers on his plantation. Admitting to something is indicative of his stubborn prideful attitude and the fact that he does not like to be corrected by anyone even. Being wrong makes the father feel very vulnerable. Even when he thinks to himself, ideas and reflections about his own personal actions cause him to question his son’s actions even further. When he describes his son as “handsome and mischievous,” there is an implied envy about the appearance of his son in comparison to himself. He feels that if his son dresses and appears as a wealthy off individual then he will no longer have the upper hand on the plantation. Not only do specific words describe the power struggle, but the author’s use of sentence structure depicts it too. Very simple sentences are used to describe the father’s feelings, whereas more complex sentences describe the way that he views his black son.
Later on, Cora (the Colonel’s Negro mistress who bore him his black son) pleaded with her son, Bert, to honor and respect the Colonel. She said, “You can’t get nothin’ from white folks if you don’t act right” (para. 129). This statement indicates that conversations between blacks and whites were performative during that time. A stern conversation did not scare the black son, Bert, and he continued to enter into a very heated argument with his white father. Bert knew that his father was carrying a gun, but he was prepared to have his father respect him for the first time in his life. This long and tense heated discussion ended in more racial slangs encouraging the white father that he had the ultimate authority. However, the white man’s authority was lost when his black son asked him, “Why don’t you shoot” (para. 159)? This question is a desire for Bert to mock his father because he believes his father would not actually shoot him. This line of questioning ended in the black son’s pride rising to action and the death of his white father. The story concludes with the white folks of the town chasing Bert, who has just killed his white father. Bert takes his own life, in order to rise to power and not be subjected to being killed by his white counterparts. Neither the black son or his white father finish as the most authoritative, but both become subject to their own pride and die fighting for their own respect. Hughes is trying to tell us that pride and respect can slowly cause self – destruction in relationships.
Throughout this entire story, the Colonel tries to maintain his dignity and authority. This theme of respect that resonates throughout the entire summer of interaction on the plantation and beyond, forms the foundation for the confrontational moments. From the start Bert says things like, “Tell him to kiss my behind” (para. 48). The issue with respect can be seen from the time Bert was a little child. The foundation of disrespect can be seen in the way the Colonel treats all of his black workers, including his son. A son should respect his father and a father should treat his son as someone who is also worthy of respect. This continual power struggle dynamic between a white father and his black son ended in a powerless tragedy for both. Hughes wanted us to realize that differing power dynamics are inevitable in all relationships, so we must be prepared for adjustment, confrontation, and respectful discourse when these situations arise.
Hughes, Langston. “Father and Son.” Sakai, ENGL 105.050.SP20, posted by Paul Blom, 18 March 2020.
Originally published in The Ways of White Folks. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1934.