by Dana Crum
This book review was published in Black Issues Book Review in 2006.
by Langston Hughes
Harlem Moon, September 2006
$10.95, ISBN: 0-767-92327-8
Parts of this short novel are so funny I can imagine Langston Hughes pausing to laugh while writing it. In the book a black church starts on a Harlem street corner but soon moves into a thousand-seat theater. The day Crow-For-Day joins the congregation and converts, he confesses his many sins, one of which involved carrying a pistol. There in church he pulls out the gun, and congregants scream and faint. After walking down the aisle with it held over his head, he tosses it out the window to illustrate his conversion.
But Crow-For-Day is merely a supporting cast member. Starring in this novel are Laura and Essie, two welfare recipients who establish the sidewalk church as a way to make money. Laura is devilishly funny. She frequently makes light of Christianity, distorting the Bible, giving its words lascivious, dissolute meanings. Can the Devil quote scripture? Indeed she can.
Essie, on the other hand, is a true believer. Both women benefit financially from the church enterprise, but while Essie’s paramount concern is remaining true to God and helping the community, Laura wants only to wring as much cash as possible from the congregants.
In this modern morality tale, Harlem Renaissance—luminary Langston Hughes pokes fun at the excesses of the black church, but never does he mock the black church itself. In fact, he celebrates the institution’s goodness, which Essie epitomizes.
Hughes briskly ushers the narrative along in 36 very short chapters. Like poems, the chapters are compressed and have colorful titles.
Though best known for his poetry, Hughes composed in several additional genres, including not just fiction but also drama, children’s literature and autobiography. Harlem Moon’s publication of Tambourines to Glory—this is its first appearance in trade paperback—means the more neglected of Hughes’ two novels may finally get the attention it has long deserved.