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Jesse B. Semple first sprang to life in Langston Hughes's weekly Chicago Defender column in 1943. Almost immediately, the "Simple stories," as they were routinely called, had a large and ever-increasing audience. Simple soon became Harlem's Everyman—an ordinary black workingman, representative of the masses of black folks in the 1940s.
Simple had migrated to Harlem, like many other blacks, seeking to escape the racism of the South, and he celebrated his new freedoms despite the economic struggles he still confronted. Simple's bar buddy and foil in the stories is the better-educated, more articulate Boyd, who has never lived in the South. Their conversations permit Simple to speak the wisdom of the working class.
By the time the first book of Simple stories was published, Hughes had honed and polished these two characters, enhancing the distinctions between the vernacular language of Simple and the more educated diction of his friend. Remaining within the Afrocentric world that was his chosen sphere, Hughes makes clear the message that Simple and Boyd are very much alike; both are black men in a racially unbalanced society. Both exist in a world within a world, in Harlem, the separate black community of New York City.
"You imply that there is no fun to be had around white folks."
"I never had none," said Simple.
"You have a color complex."
"A colored complexion," said Simple.
"I said complex, not complexion."
"I added the shun myself," said Simple. "I'm colored, and being around white folks makes me feel more colored—since most of them shun Negroes."
Countless exchanges between Simple and his companion offer wit and wisdom that remind contemporary readers why Langston Hughes is so special.
"If you want to know about my life," said Simple as he blew the foam from the top of the newly filled glass the bartender put before him, "don't look at my face, don't look at my hands. Look at my feet and see if you can tell how long I been standing on them."
"I cannot see your feet through your shoes," I said.
"You do not need to see through my shoes," said Simple. "Can't you tell by the shoes I wear-not pointed, not rocking-chair, not French-toed, not nothing but big, long, broad, and flat-that I been standing on these feet a long time and carrying some heavy burdens? They ain't flat from standing at no bar, neither, because I always sets at a bar. Can't you tell that? You know I do not hang out in a bar unless it has stools, don't you?"
"That I have observed," I said, "but I did not connect it with your past life."
"Everything I do is connected up with my past life," said Simple. "From Virginia to Joyce, from my wife to Zarita, from my mother's milk to this glass of beer, everything is connected up."
"I trust you will connect up with that dollar I just loaned you when you get paid," I said. "And who is Virginia? You never told me about her."
"Virginia is where I was borned," said Simple. "Iwould be borned in a state named after a woman. From that day on, women never give me no peace."
"You, I fear, are boasting. If the women were running after you as much as you run after them, you would not be able to sit here on this bar stool in peace. I don't see any women coming to call you out to go home, as some of these fellows' wives do around here."
"Joyce better not come in no bar looking for me," said Simple. "That is why me and my wife busted up-one reason. I do not like to be called out of no bar by a female. It's a man's perogative to just set and drink sometimes."
"How do you connect that prerogative with your past?" I asked.
"When I was a wee small child," said Simple, "I had no place to set and think in, being as how I was raised up with three brothers, two sisters, seven cousins, one married aunt, a common-law uncle, and the minister's grandchild-and the house only had four rooms. I never had no place just to set and think. Neither to set and drink-not even much my milk before some hongry child snatched it out of my hand. I were not the youngest, neither a girl, nor the cutest. I don't know why, but I don't think nobody liked me much. Which is why I was afraid to like anybody for a long time myself. When I did like somebody, I was full-grown and then I picked out the wrong woman because I had no practice in liking anybody before that. We did not get along."
"Is that when you took to drink?" "Drink took to me," said Simple. "Whiskey just naturally likes me but beer likes me better. By the time I got married I had got to the point where a cold bottle was almost as good as a warm bed, especially when the bottle could not talk and the bed-warmer could. I do not like a woman to talk to me too much-I mean about me. Which is why I like Joyce. Joyce most in generally talks about herself."
"I am still looking at your feet," I said, "and I swear they do not reveal your life to me. Your feet are no open book."
"You have eyes but you see not," said Simple. "These feet have stood on every rock from the Rock of Ages to 135th and Lenox. These feet have supported everything from a cotton bale to a hongry woman. These feet have walked ten thousand miles working for white folks and another ten thousand keeping up with colored. These feet have stood at altars, crap tables, free lunches, bars, graves, kitchen doors, betting windows, hospital clinics, WPA desks, social security railings, and in all kinds of lines from soup lines to the draft. If I just had four feet, I could have stood in more places longer. As it is, I done wore out seven hundred pairs of shoes, eighty-nine tennis shoes, twelve summer sandals, also six loafers. The socks that these feet have bought could build a knitting mill. The corns I've cut away would dull a German razor. The bunions I forgot would make you ache from now till Judgment Day. If anybody was to write the history of my life, they should start with my feet."
"Your feet are not all that extraordinary," I said. "Besides, everything you are saying is general. Tell me specifically some one thing your feet have done that makes them different from any other feet in the world, just one."
"Do you see that window in that white man's store across the street?" asked Simple. "Well, this right foot of mine broke out that window in the Harlem riots right smack in the middle. Didn't no other foot in the world break that window but mine. And this left foot carried me off running as soon as my right foot came down. Nobody else's feet saved me from the cops that night but these two feet right here. Don't tell me these feet ain't had a life of their own."
"For shame," I said, "going around kicking out windows. Why?"
"Why?" said Simple. "You have to ask my great-great-grandpa why. He must of been simple-else why did he let them capture him in Africa and sell him for a slave to breed my great-grandpa in slavery to breed my grandpa in slavery to breed my pa to breed me to look at that window and say, `It ain't mine! Bam-mmm-mm-m!' and kick it out?"
"This bar glass is not yours either," I said. "Why don't you smash it?"
"It's got my beer in it," said Simple.
Just then Zarita came in wearing her Thursday-night rabbitskin coat. She didn't stop at the bar, being dressed up, but went straight back to a booth. Simple's hand went up, his beer went down, and the glass back to its wet spot on the bar.
"Excuse me a minute," he said, sliding off the stool.
Just to give him pause, the dozens, that old verbal game of maligning a friend's female relatives, came to mind.
"Wait," I said. "You have told me about what to ask your great-great-grandpa. But I want to know what to ask your great-great-grandma."
"I don't play the dozens that far back," said Simple, following Zarita into the smoky juke-box blue of the back room.
The next time I saw him, he was hot under the collar, but only incidentally about Zarita. Before the bartender had even put the glasses down he groaned, "I do not understand landladies."
"Now what?" I asked. "A landlady is a woman, isn't she? And, according to your declarations, you know how to handle women."
"I know how to handle women who act like ladies, but my landlady ain't no lady. Sometimes I even wish I was living with my wife again so I could have my own place and not have no landladies," said Simple.
"Landladies are practically always landladies," I said.
"But in New York they are landladies plus!" declared Simple.
"For a instant, my landlady said to me one night when I come in, said, `Third Floor Rear?'
"I said, `Yes'm.'
"She says, `You pays no attention to my notices I puts up, does you?'
"I said, `No'm.'
"She says, `I know you don't. You had company in your room after ten o'clock last night in spite of my rule.'
"`No, ma'am. That was in the room next to mine.'
"`Yes, but you was in there with your company, Mr. Simple.' Zarita can't keep her voice down when she goes calling. `You and you-all's company and Mr. Boyd's was raising sand. I heard you way down here.'
"`What you heard was the Fourth Floor Back snoring, madam. We went out of here at ten-thirty and I didn't come back till two and I come back alone.'
"`Four this morning, you mean! And you slammed the door!'
"`Madam, you sure can hear good that late.'
"`I am not deer. I also was raised in a decent home. And I would like you to respect my place.'
"`Yes, ma'am,' I said, because I owed her a half week's rent and I did not want to argue right then, although I was mad. But when I went upstairs and saw that sign over them little old pink towels she hangs there in the bathroom, Lord knows for what, I got madder. Sign says:
GUEST TOWELS-ROOMERS DO NOT USE
"But when even a guest of mine uses them, she jumps salty. So for what are they there? Then I saw that other little old sign up over the sink:
WASH FACE ONLY IN BOWL-NO SOX
And a sign over the tub says:
DO NOT WASH CLOTHES IN HEAR
Another sign out in the hall says:
TURN OUT LIGHT-COSTS MONEY
As if it wasn't money I'm paying for my rent! And there's still and yet another sign in my room which states:
NO COOKING, DRINKING, NO ROWDYISMS
As if I can cook without a stove or be rowdy by myself. And then right over my bed:
NO CO. AFTER 10
Just like a man can get along in this world alone. But it were part Zarita's fault talking so loud. Anyhow when I saw all them signs I got madder than I had ever been before, and I tore them all down.
"Landladies must think roomers is uncivilized and don't know how to behave themselves. Well, I do. I was also raised in a decent home. My mama made us respect our home. And I have never been known yet to wash my socks in no face bowl. So I tore them signs down.
"The next evening when I come in from work, before I even hit the steps, the landlady yells from the parlor, `Third Floor Rear?'
"I said, `Yes, this is the Third Floor Rear.'
"She says, `Does you know who tore my signs down in the bathroom and in the hall? Also your room?'
"I said, `I tore your signs down, madam. I have been looking at them signs for three months, so I know `em by heart.'
"She says, `You will put them back, or else move.'
"I said, `I not only tore them signs down, I also tore them up!'
"She says, `When you have paid me my rent, you move.'
"I said, `I will move now.'
"She said, `You will not take your trunk now.'
"I said, `What's to keep me?'
"She said, `Your room door is locked.'
"I said, `Lady, I got a date tonight. I got to get in to change my clothes.'
"She says, `You'll get in when you pay your rent.'
"So I had to take the money for my date that night-that I was intending to take out Joyce-and pay up my room rent. The next week I didn't have enough to move, so I am still there."
"Did you put back the signs?" I asked.
"Sure," said Simple. "I even writ a new sign for her which says:
DON'T NOBODY NO TIME TEAR DOWN THESE SIGNS-ELSE MOVE"
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, rightings, 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 off of 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!'"
"I didn't know you could pray like that," I said.
"It ain't much," said Simple, "but that girl friend of mine, Joyce, drug me to church last Sunday where the man was preaching and praying about peace, so I don't see why I shouldn't make myself up a prayer, too. I figure God will listen to me as well as the next one."
"You certainly don't have to be a minister to pray," I said, "and you have composed a good prayer. But now it's up to you to help God bring it into being, since God is created in your image."
"I thought it was the other way around," said Simple.
"However that may be," I said, "according to the Bible, God can bring things about on this earth only through man. You are a man, so you must help God make a good world."
"I am willing to help Him," said Simple, "but I do not know much what to do. The folks who run this world are going to run it in the ground in spite of all, throwing people out of work and then saying, `Peace, it's wonderful!' Peace ain't wonderful when folks ain't got no job."
"Certainly a good job is essential to one's well-being," I said.
"It is essential to me," said Simple, "if I do not want to live off of Joyce. And I do not want to live off of no woman. A woman will take advantage of you, if you live off of her."
"If a woman loves you, she does not mind sharing with you," I said. "Share and share alike."
"Until times get hard!" said Simple. "But when there is not much to share, loving is one thing, and sharing is another. Often they parts company. I know because I have both loved and shared. As long as I shared mine, all was well, but when my wife started sharing, skippy!
"My wife said, `Baby, when is you going to work?'
"I said, `When I find a job.'
"She said, `Well, it better be soon because I'm giving out.'
"And, man, I felt bad. You know how long and how hard it took to get on WPA. Many a good man lost his woman in them dark days when that stuff about `I can't give you anything but love' didn't go far. Now it looks like love is all I am going to have to share again. Do you reckon depression days is coming back?"
"I don't know," I said. "I am not a sociologist."
"You's colleged," said Simple. "Anyhow, it looks like every time I gets a little start, something happens. I was doing right well pulling down that fine defense check all during the war, then all of a sudden the war had to jump up and end!"
"If you wanted the war to continue just on your account, you are certainly looking at things from a selfish viewpoint."
"Selfish!" said Simple. "You may think I am selfish when the facts is I am just hongry if I didn't have a job. It looks like in peace time nobody works as much or gets paid as much as in a war. Is that clear?"
"Clear, but not right," I said.
"Of course, it's not right to be out of work and hongry," said Simple, "just like it's not right to want to fight. That's why I prayed my prayer. I prayed for white folks, too, even though a lot of them don't believe in religion. If they did, they couldn't act the way they do.
"Last Sunday morning when I was laying in bed drowsing and resting, I turned on the radio on my dresser and got a church-by accident. I was trying to get the Duke on records, but I turned into the wrong station. I got some white man preaching a sermon. He was talking about peace on earth, good will to men, and all such things, and he said Christ was born to bring this peace he was talking about. He said mankind has sinned! But that we have got to get ready for the Second Coming of Christ-because Christ will be back! That is what started me to wondering."
"Wondering what?" I asked.
"Wondering what all these prejudiced white folks would do if Christ did come back. I always thought Christ believed in folks' treating people right."
"He did," I said.
"Well, if He did," said Simple, "what will all these white folks do who believe in Jim Crow? Jesus said, `Love one another,' didn't He? But they don't love me, do they?"
"Some do not," I said.
"Jesus said, `Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.' But they don't do that way unto me, do they?"
"I suppose not," I said.
"You know not," said Simple. "They Jim Crow me and lynch me any time they want to. Suppose I was to do unto them as they does unto me? Suppose I was to lynch and Jim Crow white folks, where would I be? Huh?"
Excerpted from The Collected Works of Langston Hughes Copyright © 2002 by Ramona Bass and Arnold Rampersad
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|A Note on the Text||9|
|Simple Speaks His Mind (1950)||11|
|Simple Takes a Wife (1953)||171|
|Index of Titles||382|
Posted February 21, 2003
I love Langston's poetry because I am a writer myself. However, reading his 'Simple' stories always gives me some thought-provoking entertainment. A lot of was Simple does and says is prophetic, albeit in a comic sense most times. Who would have thought? Entertainment and intellect in the same pages. Langston = Magnificent!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.