Biography of Langston Hughes
Born in 1902, Langston Hughes was an influential African-American author, poet, and politician. Around his time of birth it was common for African-Americans to be uneducated, poverty ridden, and most of all, ashamed. Ashamed of who they were and where they were from. Despite Hughes’ environment, he remained unashamed and prideful of who he was. In fact, the usual things people were ashamed of only inspired him and his works. He once stated, “Most of my poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know.” He, as a person, can be reflected in many of his poems and short stories such as, “Cora Unashamed.” In “Cora Unashamed” the protagonist, Cora Jenkins, is an African-American woman in a small, predominantly Caucasian town.
Due to her race, her social status is low and her financial state is low. She works as a maid to care for her family all while enduring loss of loved ones and the bigotry of townsfolk. The story is exactly what the title states it to be. The main character, Cora, is just as unashamed, humble, and prideful as Hughes was. From the beginning, Cora was always humble. Being the eldest out of eight children, she had to not only nurture them, but she had to help support them financially as well. With that being said, she dropped out of school in the eighth grade and went to work for the Studevants’. Hughes states, “And before that—well, somebody had to help Ma look after one baby behind another that kept on coming. As a child Cora had no playtime. She always had a little brother, or a little sister in her arms. Bad, crying bratty babies, hungry and mean. In the eighth grade she quit school and went to work with the Studevants. After that, she ate better.
Half day’s work at first, helping Ma at home the rest of the time.” (“Cora” 1). Working for the Studevants was not the easiest nor were they the most considerate people. In fact, Cora was treated like she was their property; they felt as if they owned her. Hughes wrote, “ She was the Studevants’ maid of all work—washing, ironing, cooking, scrubbing, taking care of kids, nursing old folks, making fires, carrying water…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.” (“Cora” 1). Despite being treated poorly and put in a never ending cycle of poverty and helping others, Cora remained respectful and most of all unashamed for doing what she had to do to survive.
Another example of Cora being prideful was when she gave birth to her dear Josephine. Cora met foreign man and was drawn to him. One thing led to another and she soon became impregnated with his child. “Even Cora, the humble, had a lover once. He came to town on a freight train (long ago now), and worked at the livery stable. (That was before autos got to be so common.) Everybody said he was an I.W.W. Cora didn’t care. He was the first man and the last she ever remembered wanting.” (“Cora” 1). Around that era, it was highly frowned upon by society for women to have babies out of wedlock. Not only was Josephine considered a “bastard child”, but she was also biracial, which was also seen as a disgrace. Cora knew how dishonorable and humiliating it was for her, yet she simply did not care. She continued to do what he had always done, be modest and earnest. “Cora didn’t go anywhere to have her child. Nor tried to hide it. When the baby grew big within her, she didn’t feel that it was a disgrace.
The Studevants told her to go home and stay there. Joe left town. Pa cussed. Ma cried. One April morning the kid was born. She had gray eyes, and Cora called her Josephine, after Joe.” (“Cora” 2). Despite everyone looking down upon her, including her own parents, Cora still went about life content. She had no shame, remorse, or guilt for having Josephine in those conditions. She had not even expected to be with Joe or for Joe to stay. Cora maintained thoughtless about the situation and handled her responsibilities as she had always done. “Cora was humble and shameless before the fact of the child. There were no Negroes in Melton to gossip, and she didn’t care what the white people said. They were in another world. Of course, she hadn’t expected to marry Joe, or keep him.
He was of that other world, too. But the child was hers—a living bridge between two worlds. Let people talk.” (“Cora” 1). Although many disapproved of her actions and choices, Cora remained independent and encouraged to persevere. Cora can be seen as unashamed through her motherly relationship with the Studevants daughter, Jessie. Jessie was the same age as Josephine, had Josephine been alive. She was the “odd” child out of the Studevants children, and often ran to Cora for comfort, advice, and protection. Towards the end of Jessie’s (late) senior year, she became pregnant with a foreigners child just as Cora did. Too fearful to tell her parents, she confided in Cora, and Cora informed her mother, Mrs. Studevant. Mrs. Studevants reaction was the completely dreadful. As a result, she decided to take Jessie on an “Easter shopping trip” to Kansas. The trip was a facade of Jessie getting an unwanted abortion, which led to her becoming terribly ill and dying.
Jessie’s death deeply hurt Cora for Jessie was Coras last hope. Jessie was the only thing that kept Cora going since the death of her own child; therefore she was hysterical and outraged at her beloved Jessie’s death. Cora exclaimed, “Cora got up from her seat by the dining-room door. She said, ‘Honey, I want to say something.’ She spoke as if she were addressing Jessie. She approached the coffin and held out her brown hands over the white girl’s body. Her face moved in agitation. People sat stone-still and there was a long pause. Suddenly she screamed. ‘They killed you! And for nothin’…They killed your child…They took you away from here in the springtime of your life, and now you’se gone, gone, gone!’ (“Cora” 3). It is clear that she was enraged and sorrowful. Although she was recognized as “the help” being from a low social class, she had no “place” or “authority” to speak out, however she did carelessly. The motherly love and affection she had for her had not left once Jessie departed earth; it further ignited. She passionately expressed the shameful and gruesome truth about Jessie’s death, and had the crowd shook.
The persona states, “Before they could reach her, Cora pointed her long fingers at the women in black and said, ‘They killed you, honey. They killed you and your child. I told ’em you loved it, but they didn’t care. They killed it before it was…’ (“Cora” 3). By doing this bold act, Cora risked her job, well-being, and reputation, yet she spoke out for Jessie shamelessly and non hesitantly. Overall, Langston Hughes’ protagonist, Cora can be described as many things, but unashamed truly defines who she was as a character. Her actions from birth defined her as such. As an African American woman in the early 1920’s life was not anywhere near easy for her or others, but she managed to remain resilient and have pride in who she was. She supported her family while dealing with loss and heartache. Coras role in “Cora Unashamed” definitely reflects Hughes demeanor: unashamed, humble, and prideful.