Hughes columns elegantly 'Simple'

September 19, 1994|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Staff Writer

Langston Hughes is one of this country's foremost poets and essayists of the 20th century, but he was also a superb newspaper columnist. For more than 20 years, he wrote a column in which his main character, Jesse B. Semple, would sit in a Harlem bar and wax on about race in America, women troubles and whatever else passed through his mind.

Semple was known by his nickname, "Simple," and though he would insist he knew no more than any other uneducated working-class guy, he would proceed to tell everyone just what was wrong with the state of the world. He was no wise fool, as with Forrest Gump; Simple would never have allowed his mind to stay as a tabula rasa. Rather, he was a wise innocent. He insisted on the truth, and while it might have been painful to accept, it was nonetheless, well, simple.

For example, Simple declares in one column that he had just joined the NAACP. But he also notes that he participated in the Harlem riots of 1943 -- provoked by the police shooting of a black soldier -- because "I wanted Justice." A listener tells him, "You had no business breaking up stores, either. That is no way to get Justice." Simple retorts:

"That is the way the Allies got it -- breaking up Germany, breaking up Hiroshima, and everything in sight. But these white folks are more scared of Negroes in the U.S.A. than they ever was of Hitler . . . "

Hughes (1902-1967) began his columns in the black-owned Chicago Defender in 1943 and wrote the last one in the New York Post in 1965. "The Return of Simple" contains some columns reprinted in earlier anthologies, along with later columns that had not been reprinted.

It's a rewarding collection, showing both the strengths and the weaknesses of the columns.

Interestingly, as Hughes scholar Arnold Rampersad notes in the introduction, Hughes had conceived of the columns as a way to encourage blacks to support America's involvement in World War II. Hughes was by then a committed radical and thus was an unlikely person to exhort blacks to support the war effort. But he came to believe in "the need for unity in the face of an enemy worse than segregation."

But, as Dr. Rampersad writes, many blacks "found it difficult . . . to see how their own lives in America could be much worse under Fascism." It was Hughes' great triumph that, through Simple, he could denounce America's appalling social climate while still holding out for fundamental principles of decency and respect for all. Simple is often angry, but he is not a cynic.

The columns in "The Return of Simple" are divided into four sections: "Women in Simple's Life"; "Race, Riots, Police, Prices, and Politics"; "Africa and Black Pride"; and "Parting Lines." As the titles suggest, Simple had mostly race and women on his mind.

Many of the columns on women have Baltimore references, for Hughes has Simple living in the city in the 1920s and 1930s before moving to Harlem -- and it was in Baltimore that Simple's women troubles were especially pronounced. One column, "Baltimore Womens," recounts his marriage to a woman named Isabel, who ultimately left him because he had little money and they had to live in a bug-infested house.

"It was not bedbugs that brought our happiness to an end," Simple muses. "It was Isabel herself. Both womens and bedbugs can really bug a man. I don't know which I hate to remember more, Baltimore womens or Baltimore bugs."

For my taste, the columns on Simple's women woes are among the weakest in the collection. The humor is often forced, and there is little of the insight one sees in Hughes' politically oriented columns.

Perhaps that's because among Simple's most appealing attributes are his anger and his ability to cut through hypocrisy. Those qualities may not serve one well in the ambiguous setting of male-female relationships, but they make the political columns sparkle.

In the final column, titled "Hail and Farewell" and published in the New York Post in December 1965, Simple and his second wife, Joyce, are buying a place in "the suburbans." He's not crazy about leaving the comforts of Harlem: "Joyce says we will be the first Negroes on the block. That will also be a drag. I likes to be around my people."

What about his white neighbors, he is asked. "It is still an all-white block this week, but FOR SALE signs are up everywhere," Simple responds. " . . . Joyce and me will be breaking the ice in January -- then the real estate agents will do the rest -- selling houses to Negroes at twice the price."

It's a sad exit for Simple, but still a wise one. And he was always wise.

Mr. Warren's reviews appear Mondays in The Sun.


Title: "The Return of Simple"

Author: Langston Hughes; edited by Akiba Sullivan Harper

Publisher: Hill and Wang

Length, price: 218 pages, $20

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