Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: Langston's Simple Genius

By Harper, Donna Akiba Sullivan | The New Crisis, January/February 2002 | Go to article overview

Langston Hughes Centennial, 1902-1967: Langston's Simple Genius


Harper, Donna Akiba Sullivan, The New Crisis


It was a hot night. Simple was sitting on his landlady's stoop reading a newspaper by streetlight. When he saw me coming, he threw the paper down.

"Good evening, " I said.

"Good evening nothing, " he answered. "It's too hot to be any good evening. Besides, this paper's full of nothing but atom bombs and bad news, wars and rumors of wars, airplane crashes, murders, fightings, wife-whippings, and killings, from the Balkans to Brooklyn. Do you know one thing? If I was a praying man, I would pray a prayer for this world right now."

"What kind of prayer would you pray, friend?"

"I would pray a don't-want-to-have-no-more-wars prayer, and it would go like this: `Lord,'I would say, I would ask Him, `Lord, kindly please, take the blood of off my hands and off of my brothers' hands, and make us shake hands clean and not be afraid. Neither let me nor them have no knives behind our backs, Lord, nor up our sleeves, nor no bombs piled out yonder in a desert. Let's forget about bygones. Too many mens and womens are dead. The fault is mine and theirs, too. So teach us all to do right, Lord, please, and to get along together with that atom bomb on this earth - because I do not want it to fall on me - nor Thee - nor anybody living. Amen!"'

So begins one of those famous conversations between Langston Hughes' Harlem everyman, Jesse B. Semple, and his collegeeducated foil. The original version of that prayer was called a "Victory Prayer," and it appeared in the column "Simple's Selfish Peace" in the Sept. 15, 1945, edition of the Chicago Defender. But in the midst of the nation's current national crisis, Semple's words have a haunting echo.

Thus was the genius of Langston Hughes, to have created a character who can, at times, transcend decades with his wit and wisdom. Through Simple, Hughes celebrated the fullness of life - its joys and its sorrows - and distilled some of the nation's most complicated issues during a particularly complicated period: World War II.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had announced in January 1941 that the goal of the U.S. war effort was to preserve four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. They were freedoms that African Americans didn't enjoy in the very land of their birth. So when Roosevelt talked about freedom, it was not surprising that many African Americans wondered what he meant.

Into these troubled times marched Jesse B. Semple and Hughes' start of a 23-year career as a newspaper columnist. His column appeared in the Chicago Defender, the third most widely read Black newspaper of the 1940s. Few whites read the Black press, so Hughes wrote freely, without any need to define slang, or explain cultural phenomenona like the wearing of stocking caps.

From a literary standpoint, Simple may have arisen from the popularity of Richard Wright's bestselling novel, Native Son, published in 1940. In The Crisis of June 1941. Hu hes wrote an article, "The Need for Heroes." In it, he expressed a fear that the negative behaviors and altered mental states of lead characters in literary works such as Native Son and even in Hughes' own Broadway play Mulatto might leave future generations wondering if Black people lacked heroes. For Hughes, these heroes (male and female) included more than just the celebrated and familiar icons, such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. He wanted to recognize, too, the daily heroism of average working Black Americans who triumphed over humiliation and low wages, confident that their offspring would fare better one day. He urged that writers celebrate those who withstood the pressure and oppression of racism, yet "did not die a suicide, or a mob-victim, or a subject for execution, or a defeated humble beatendown human being." Simple was such a hero.

Hughes began his weekly column on Nov. 12, 1942. He promised to use his column to talk about how events over "yonder" impacted the folks "here. …

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