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Summary of Langston Hughes' "Red-Headed Baby"

Summary of Langston Hughes' Red-Headed Baby

Background Information

In the 1920s, Americans had more money to travel and to invest in real estate. There was also a new way to travel-the automobile. For the first time middle class families could afford to travel. Anyone could become rich if they invested right. Florida was considered to be an exotic paradise, which led to the land boom ("the boom") of the 1920s. Investors like Carl G. Fisher flocked to Florida to make their fortunes by purchasing land and reselling it for a profit. Carl G. Fisher bought a huge lit-up billboard in New York's Time Square that read "It's June in Miami;" in order to entice both tourists and investors. Property prices in Florida rose rapidly due to the expectation of property sales rather than the actual value of land in question. An excessive amount of supplies were ordered for the burgs that were to be built along the Florida coastline. By the beginning of 1925, Florida investments began to receive a great deal of negative press, and the project was said to be a big sham. Property prices got so high that investors could no longer sell their land. The Florida land boom dissipated, leaving a lot of empty or half-built buildings in its wake. The tourist market was crippled. In September 1926, a hurricane hit south Florida; many of the new buildings were in ruins, and many people died. When the stock market failed in 1929 and the Great Depression ensued Florida was not affected that much, because Florida was already in a weak financial state. In 1930, the citrus industry in Florida was severely hurt by the introduction of the Mediterranean fruit fly.




Summary

The narrator has been working on the same ship for the last five years, and has only managed to rise to third mate. The ship was docked in southern Florida, the site of the great land boom of the 1920s. He walked through the half-built little burgs along the coast; the only things left there were the mosquitoes, sand, and African Americans. He was walking to Betsy's house; he had slept with three years ago. The first time they met Betsy told him that she was a virgin, but that was three years ago. She is "probably on the crib-line* now" (366). There were no streetlights, so the stars were the only guiding lights. He arrived at what he thought to be the house; he remembered that the house had a gate that was falling down, and there it was still falling down. He stood at the gate reminiscing; she was only seventeen the last time he saw her. Her and her old woman acted like they had never had a white man in their house before. Betsy liked his red hair. She was well worth the money, because she acted like an innocent virgin. He thought to himself that it would "be funny if she had another mule in my stall*" (366). He called out to see if anyone was in the house. The old woman told him to come in; she knew that it was Mister Clarence (narrator's name) at the door. The old woman seemed very excited to see him. Clarence thought to himself how the old lady still didn't "care where the money comes from" (367). Betsy entered the room; she was a "young yellow girl in a white house dress. Oiled hair. Skin like an autumn moon. Gold-ripe young yellow girl with a white house dress to her knees. Soft plump are legs, color of the moon. Barefooted" (367). Betsy told the old woman to give Clarence a drink. Clarence was surprised to hear that these once good church members had liquor* in the house. The old man told him that they are expecting coming more often these days. Liquor wasn't the only thing that had changed; Betsy started wearing rouge (blush/lipstick), flirting, and drinking liquor. He told Betsy to sit in his lap, which she did. They were sitting together enjoying their liquor when a door opened slowly. The white man was startled. A red-headed baby stood in the doorway. The kid said nothing, just starred at them with his blue-eyes. The white man was truly shocked. The baby's name was Clarence; he was deaf, and over two years old. The white man remarked that the baby was really white for an African American baby. The old woman told him that Betsy's father was a white man too. The baby came over to Clarence: "Hey! Take your hands off my legs, you lousy little bastard!" (369). Clarence was angered and shocked by the sight of that baby. He rambled to himself: "A red-headed baby. Moonlight-gone baby. No kind of yellow-white bow-legged goggled-eyed County Fair baseball baby. Get him the hell out of here pulling at my legs looking like me at me like me at myself like me red-headed as me" (369). Clarence got up suddenly and asked how much for the liquor. Betsy tried to get him to stay, but all he wanted to do was pay for the liquor and get as far away from there as possible. He paid them two dollars for the liquor and said good bye.

Slang Definitions

"Crib-line"- she has become a mother
"Mule in my stall"- if she was sleeping with another man in the bed that he took her virginity in.
"Liquor"- prohibition was in effect in Florida at this time

Sources

Hughes, Langston. "Red-Headed Baby." The Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. 365-370.

Land boom info was found at: http://floridahistory.org/landboom.htm

Published on February 2, 2012 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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