Although he is probably better known as a poet, Langston Hughes (1901-67), a leading writer of the Harlem Renaissance, also wrote some of the finest short stories of the early twentieth century, and ‘Red-Headed Baby’ is one of his best.
‘Red-Headed Baby’ was published in Hughes’ 1934 collection The Ways of White Folks, which examines the relations between white Americans and African Americans with sympathy and humour. In just a few pages, Hughes sketches out an encounter between a red-headed man and his former girlfriend, an African-American woman living in Florida.
‘Red-Headed Baby’: plot summary
The story is set on the Florida coast, where Clarence, a white man with red hair, is revisiting the house of a teenage black girl, named Betsy, with whom he had been romantically and sexually involved three years earlier. The man is third mate on a ship. The girl had told him she liked his red hair and had never ‘had’ a white man before.
Upon arriving at the house, Clarence is greeted by Betsy’s aunt, who tells him to come in. As he sits waiting for Betsy, he conjectures that many white men must visit the house to see Betsy these days, because her aunt didn’t think a white man approaching the house was strange.
Betsy is now twenty years old, and Clarence comments on how plump she looks. He also makes a comment about how the family now keeps alcohol in their house where before they had forbidden it since they were deeply religious. They sit and drink alcohol together when the door opens and Clarence spots someone peeping in at them.
It turns out to be a red-headed baby with blue eyes and ‘yellow’ skin: Betsy’s baby, over two years old now. Clarence observes that he is very white for the baby of a black woman. It is revealed that the baby is deaf. Clarence is horrified and appalled by the sight of the baby, and insists on paying them for the alcohol he has drunk, before bidding them goodbye.
‘Red-Headed Baby’: analysis
Hughes can best be described as a modernist writer: much of the Harlem Renaissance saw writers, specifically African-American writers, experimenting with new forms and modes of expression, including free verse in poetry, and jazz rhythms and motifs in fiction. ‘Red-Headed Baby’ is a highly elliptical story, meaning that much of the detail is either only half-hinted at or left out altogether.
Hughes lets us get our bearings gradually, plunging us straightaway into one of Clarence’s rants as he makes his way to Betsy’s house. Rather than introducing Clarence’s personality, job, appearance, and reason for making this journey in the first paragraph (something a realist writer might have chosen to do), Hughes feeds these details to us gradually, so we slowly gather more information about Clarence and his relationship with Betsy.
‘Red-Headed Baby’ tackles the theme of illegitimate birth, which was already a heated enough issue in 1930s America, where having a child outside wedlock could make you a social pariah. But Hughes adds in another detail: the birth of an illegitimate child whose mother and father are of different ethnic backgrounds. This means another theme of Hughes’s story is what is called miscegenation: the interbreeding of two people who are considered to be of different races.
Both Clarence and Betsy appear to have been attracted to each other precisely because of their racial difference: Clarence makes numerous references to Betsy’s ‘yellow’ skin and her brown hips. Similarly, Betsy appears to have been attracted to the novelty of having ‘a white man’, especially one with red hair: a feature which is mentioned several times in the short narrative, and which helps to identify Clarence as the father of Betsy’s baby.
Betsy’s aunt tells Clarence that Betsy’s father was a white man, which is perhaps why Clarence refers to Betsy’s skin as ‘yellow’: she is mixed race, and because she has had a child with a white man, Clarence, their baby looks mostly like a white child, the aunt tells him. And yet being a mixed-race woman with an illegitimate child in Depression-era America is not going to be easy for Betsy.
This baby is just two years old and deaf. As such, her red-headed baby is voiceless, and an outsider. The child’s only real action in the story is to observe – and, of course, to be observed by his father, who leaves as soon as he has seen enough. There is no prospect of paying towards the welfare of his son: his only act is to insist on paying for the liquor he has consumed, as if he’s leaving a public bar and wants to settle his debts before he leaves. It’s as if he is trying to smooth over his own conscience at deserting his own offspring and the mother of his child. If he won’t pay for the child’s maintenance, he can at least pay for his drink.
Of course, in combining the themes of illegitimacy and miscegenation in ‘Red-Headed Baby’, Hughes is inviting us to think about what options the couple reasonably have. They were clearly attracted to each other and yet how good a match they’d be if they married and settled down to raise their baby together is left open to debate. Clarence, as a ship’s mate, has a job that he could use to support them, but he would be absent for long periods at sea. But there’s also the social stigma which Hughes invites us to think about: intermarriage between ‘black’ and ‘white’ Americans was still rare in the 1930s and would not necessarily make their lives much easier, in the way that two white people getting married after having an illegitimate child would.
Indeed, Clarence’s opening comments as he makes his way to Betsy’s house show that, whatever his attraction, then and now, to Betsy, he has no fondness for the area where she lives, which he considers to be one of the many ‘dumps’ where he is put ashore, with half-finished ‘skeleton’ houses. One wonders whether this was all part of the appeal for him in the first place, however: he was drawn to Betsy because of her surroundings rather than in spite of them.
A key piece of symbolism in ‘Red-Headed Baby’ is darkness: on his way to the house, Clarence complains about the lack of street lights as he makes his way through the streets, and when he arrives at Betsy’s house he has to wait on the threshold (itself a symbolic marker of their social difference) while her aunt puts the oil lamp on. Society, Hughes seems to be saying, would rather keep people like this in the darkness, out of sight, out of mind – and the people living in these communities have little money to afford better lighting.