Essay

Langston Hughes and Jesse B. Simple

“Lansgton Hughes and Jesse B. Semple”

In the early 1940s an African American writer by the name of Langston Hughes, who flourished during the Harlem Renaissance in New York, had established a character in his short story writings named Jesse B. Semple. Through these short stories he used this character to represent the black man of his times. However the question remains, is Jesse B. Semple an accurate representation of the black man of 1940s? This question can best be answered by looking at the conditions of society during that time period, what the mind set of the black man in that era and comparing it to the representation that Hughes created with Jesse B. Semple.

Langston Hughes was born on February 1st, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He started education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. He went on to write and publish his first work, a poem called, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in Crisis magazine. He then continued his education at Columbia University in New York in 1921. He then lived for sometime in Paris and after returning to the United States, he worked in Washington D.C. as a busboy. Later after that, Vachel Lindsay discovered Hughes literary talents. Hughes talents did not only exist in poetry, he also expanded his talent into music, play writing, and short stories, for example the “Simple” stories. His most prominent work however was written and published during the Harlem Renaissance a time where many other African-American authors were showcasing their work and being published. Hughes however, stood above the rest with his multiple talents and work which spread across the board. The white society of America at the time of the Harlem Renaissance and years after began to label him as a radical. Hughes remained extremely prolific to the very end of his life. Hughes published over forty books, including a series of children’s books. However, if you add his translations and his many anthologies of black writing, the amount of books he has published would double. He remained a controversial figure, having been considered a dangerous radical in the 1940s. Hughes was now, as he retained his lifelong commitment to racial integration, rejected by 1960s radicals considered to be a part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. However, that would not stop Hughes from being recognized as one of the important black authors in African-American literature. Later on in his life, Hughes died at the age of sixty-five from congestive heart failure on May 22nd, 1967.

The society in which Langston Hughes was projecting his work to was the era of the Harlem Renaissance. However, even though the, “Simple” stories were created during the Harlem Renaissance they held more importance during the 1940s. To best comprehend what the character, Jesse B. Semple represented you must look at the society of that era and the point in time he was created. Hughes began writing the, “Simple” stories in 1943. It started as a weekly column in the Negro Newspaper, the Chicago Defender. During the 1940s the black man was still experiencing oppression and segregation from the whites in America. The Civil Rights movement had not yet taken place so blacks were still considered less then a citizen. Blacks in America could not vote yet nor could they eat in the same restaurants as whites or even get a job other than a servant in a white business or establishment. Therefore, with the type of climate that the society of the 1940s had, many of the black authors coming out of the Harlem Renaissance, especially Hughes, were considered radicals.

During the 1940s there were many authors creating poems and stories to try and uplift the spirit of the black community in New York. However, Langston Hughes felt inspired to write about a fictional character, which in he attempted to represent all of the feelings of the black man without being blatant or bold: “Jesse B. Semple is certainly no romantic hero, protest victim or militant leader, no charismatic character for the young to emulate” (“Critical Essays” Klotman; p. 180). He created Jesse B. Semple, a character that would make an effort to represent the common man. His characteristics were.