Saturday, February 09, 2013

223. The Best of Simple by Langston Hughes

The Best of Simple (Noonday Press, 1961*; 245) by Langston Hughes is a collection of seventy very short stories serialised chronologically to tell the story of Jesse B. Semple (usually spelt Simple) - an average black Joe whose experiences and actions during the epoch of segregation could be described as representative of the larger black community, especially Harlem.

From unstable jobs to living from day to day; from saving to marry to caring for a other family members; from the torments of segregation to becoming the head of a family, Simple's dialogue provides an insight to life and especially of dashed aspirations and frustrations of black Americans who had become slaves in the South and had to escape to the North to have some semblance of opportunities in terms of jobs as factory hands or maids, where the rights of black workers are not guaranteed. As expected, Simple talked about racial discrimination and how foreigners - as long as they are white - have more liberty and rights when they come to America than they who had been born there.

Simple's observations also included the changing social, cultural, political and economic life of the people. For instance, he bemoaned how skirts were increasingly becoming shorter and how scantily dresses cover the body; he also bemoans why there are no blacks in the movies and plays apart from singing, where they were represented. In the economy, Simple did not understand why blacks earn far less than whites, and why they (blacks) are employed mostly for the menial of jobs even if they have the necessary skills. He also observed how blacks suffered from serious identity crisis, with each wanting to become white - in their dressing, look (powdering themselves), culture and more. However, the most scathing of all of Simple's observations was the comparison between game reserves and segregation. According to Simple, whites loved animals more than they love blacks and so had created game reserves with strictly enforced 'no hunting' signs whilst they have created slums for blacks unprotected from lynching to death by white supremacists and keeping them out of the amenities-filled white neighbourhoods through high prices, .

Laced through Simple's commentary is the story of his own (love) life and how he was (un)working on his divorce from Zarita and to marry Joyce, a 'cultured' woman who almost rubs shoulders with the creme de la creme of black society. His ways with women, especially with is ex but undivorced wife, and his changing views as he matures and gets closer to becoming a husband.

Though Langston Hughes wrote this narrative from the point of view of Simple, it was not Simple who narrated his stories. The stories are given to the reader second-hand by Simple's best friend and drinking pal, Joe. Joe provides the necessary counterpoint to Simple's ideas. He played the Devil's Advocate in all of Simple's ramblings, teasing him out and giving him counter-examples on every issue Simple raises. These counterpoints provides the much-needed alternative. Simple questions why blacks do not patronised things produced by blacks; why they do not support one another or help their own? and why they need the stamp of white folks to see the greatness of some blacks who are doing well? This is an example of pathological analysis of black behaviour Simple and his friend performed. The use of race as an excuse by individual blacks for not working was also dissected. They were worried how privileged blacks prefer to be accepted by whites, to live in white communities and do the things they do, whilst at they same time breaking all contact and associations with other blacks who are not as privileged as they are. These blacks usually pretend to talk about race or pretend to be working to improving the lot of their people, even though, in reality, they want to be the only ones doing well.

Simple's discussion of segregation brought out another angle of segregation; one which has hardly been discussed: that is the issue of language. He explained how blacks who could speak a foreign language, or even pretend to speak one, are treated differently and better, almost like whites, than those who speak English, especially if it's the ghetto lingua.

With Simple, nothing is simple: domestic issues such as the sucking of pork bones and issues of manners could very easily morphed into global issues such as the dropping of atomic bombs and the implementation of Jim Crow.

This is a simple book. The language used for the dialogue - which is what carries the story - is written in that ghetto English lingua. Simple provides another window to the life of blacks in a not too distant past. It is recommended.
* First Published


  1. He's regarded as a role model of Black Americans. Possibly a second Martin Luther King. He writes racism from his perceptive. Great review. I'm certain of grabbing a copy before the close of the year.

    1. Actually, I didn't know of this man until I read his book and even then I can't claim to know him since I've not read much about his person. But thanks for the information I will search more.

  2. I've never heard of this book although I am well aware of Langston Hughes. You did a great job reviewing it. I am definitely interested in reading it now. Thanks.

  3. Not Without Laughter is an excellent coming-of-age novel, it made me appreciate Hughes even more; previously I had read some of his poetry in college, though perhaps not with the attention they deserved, and liked it. I keep thinking I have to buy his collected poems.

    1. I got this because a fellow sent it to me. It's sad how books can't cross the oceans that fast or frequent enough because some books are supposed to be sold here and not there etc.

      I would want to read his full novel.

  4. A well written and detailed review of one of my favorite books. I would only like to add that Boyd and Simple represent two different social classes---Boyd, like Hughes, is a writer, where Simple is a blue collar worker, an everyman. This no doubt shapes the two men's distinct perspectives as is evident in their constant arguments.

    1. Thanks for the explanation. It opens up a lot to me.


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