Practical Equality in the Fiction of Langston Hughes


Langston Hughes photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1936

by Robert L. Tsai

An enduring theme in political art is how to reconcile a society’s majestic ideals with the gritty lived experience of ordinary people. A dip into the fiction of Langston Hughes offers a tantalizing look at one way to do this. Hughes is best known for his vivid poetry and heart-felt depictions of the black experience in America from the 1920s through to the ’60s. But his short stories, many of which were first published in the Chicago Defender, and later collected as books accomplish something more: they explore the tensions between idealism and pragmatism in the pursuit of racial injustice.

The stories feature a character named Jesse B. Semple (nicknamed “Simple”), a kind of black everyman. The usual scene is spartan and involves no more than two or three characters engaged in conversation, often after work at a local bar. Simple and his friends discuss everything from the adequacy of integration as a solution to the efficacy of social movements as a means of stimulating legal change. The tales are often outrageous, sometimes maddening, but always hilariously incisive.

Equality is a central concern of Hughes’s work, but in his hands, the concept possesses a desperate, embodied—and thoroughly pragmatic—quality to it. There are serious inequities facing black Americans, he reports, yet serious social and psychological obstacles must be overcome before anything resembling justice can be achieved. It’s time to “get with the nitty-gritty, wise up and be witty,” Simple says, summarizing his project.

For Hughes, equality can never be redefined as civility. “It is not enough for white folks just to shake my hand and tell me I am equal,” Simple tells a friend in the short story, Duty Is Not Snooty. “What I want is to be treated equal.” It’s not a procedural ideal, and it’s certainly not to be reduced to a social lubricant. Instead, equality remains the substantive concern of practical justice. It’s an ethical injunction to do “the right thing,” it’s about “treating people right,” and it’s a concept that’s so obvious that it barely needs explication.

The problem isn’t how clear the concept of equality is; rather, the sticking point is the majority of Americans’ lack of understanding of everyday injustice and their willingness to enforce the principle of equality in real life. “The Constitution guarantees us equal rights,” Simple diagnoses in Hard Times.

[B]ut have I got ‘em? No. It’s fell down on me. . . . Just like it fell down on that poor Negro lynched last month. Did anybody out of that mob go to jail? Not a living soul!

The reality of Jim Crow never matches how it’s been billed. “Half the time, no mirrow, no paper towels, sometimes no sink even to wash your hands” in a “colored” toilet, Simple complains. “I wants me a train-station toilet with everything in it everybody else has got.” His plea for equal treatment is grounded in basic dignity and bodily needs. The legal principle of “separate but equal” is exposed as a disgusting cultural lie, one perpetuated by the white majority to maintain their own comfort.

In the story, Simple Pins on Medals, Hughes plays on the multiple meanings of the word “resolve” to reveal white hypocrisy and underscore the seemingly intractable difficulty of inequality, while bringing wry humor to the task. One night, after the juke box had gone quiet, Simple notes that “it’s been written down a long time ago that all men are borned equal and everybody is entitled to life and liberty while pursuing happiness. It’s in the Constitution, also Declaration of Independence, so I do not see why it has to be resolved all over again.” His drinking companion asks, “Who is resolving it all over again?”

Simple’s answer: “Some white church convention—I read it in the papers where they have resolved all that over and the Golden Rule, too, also that Negroes should be treated right.” He finds this all a waste of time. “It looks like to me white folks better stop resolving and get to doing. They have resolved enough. Resolving ain’t solving.”

We are then confronted with the author’s clearest exposition of what practical justice might look like. “The white race has got a double duty to us,” Simple explains. “They ought to start treating us right. They also ought to make up for how bad they have treated us in the past.”

Dramatizing this theme of bodily indignity elsewhere, Simple tells a ridiculous, sad story about a black G.I. who has to go to the bathroom so badly he has no time to wait for the colored latrine to become free. When a white M.P. threatens to shoot him if he enters the white latrine, the black soldier must brandish his own weapon to be able to answer nature’s call. This serves as a reminder that violence lies at the heart of legalized racism.  That the loyal black soldier must resort to his own show of force suggests that firm resistance of some sort might be necessary to obtain the benefits of meaningful equality.

Like other great American pragmatists, Hughes embraces empiricism as a tool for understanding social problems, rather than highfalutin gestures towards abstractions alone. “White folks has got a theoretical knowledge of prejudice,” Simple shares with the reader, almost conspiratorially. “I want them to have a real one.” Inequality must be understood through human trial, the equivalent of a gut punch, a bodily immersion in the squalor and brutality of everyday injustice.

He’s got a few ideas along these lines. Simple is all for public spectacle to bring down segregation, the more spectacular, the better. “For freedom’s sake—and adventure,” he proposes that tours of the “Savage South” be arranged for white Northerners. He would make sure whites run into black folk during the trip to make it worthwhile. The ads might read: “Special rates for a Week-end in a Typical Mississippi Jail. Get arrested now, pay later. Bail money not included.”

Making anti-discrimination the heart of equality, as many activists and civic leaders have done, is just not enough. As Simple points out, a person must already be advantaged—possess a job, a home, prospects—before the principle of anti-discrimination can do much good. Without these antecedent events, civil rights laws do little for the average black citizen. “The NAACP and the unions is wrestling over color bars in employment. . . but there is no color bar in unemployment” Simple says, pointing out the narrowness of the civil rights agenda. “When a man is unemployed and out of work, be he black or white, his pockets is equally empty.”

Chicago Defender article: “Here to Yonder: Simple And The Atom Bomb”, August 18, 194. Image courtesy of the Chicago Defender

If there is a risk in all of this, it’s that portraying equality mostly in bodily terms might confuse material equality with mere sufficiency, and civic egalitarianism with no more than the ability to escape abusive treatment. More pervasive structural conditions—at least some of the ones that could be changed if we were imaginative enough in our politics—seemingly lie beyond Simple’s capacity to diagnose. But comments like the last—which venture into economic conditions and meaningful employment—start to push the notion of equality into the realm of material opportunity. This is a helpful and welcome effort, even if it’s incomplete.

How, then, might practical justice be achieved? One of the creative techniques Hughes deploys repeatedly is sudden role reversal, where members of a political majority must switch places with those in the minority. It’s his version of that old adage, “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” but with a twist: sometimes it might be necessary for people to be forced to experience material inequality. “White folks that love me and care for my race ought to sleep in colored hotels when they travel,” Simple insists. “But it is their duty to find out” how bad Jim Crow really is, “and duty cannot be snooty.”

In this way, Hughes makes a claim about the necessary preconditions for justice in a world wracked by so much pain and degradation: both oppressor and victim must become reconnected as comrades in suffering. Only then can mutual understanding break the cycle of violence inherent in Jim Crow and reach for some grander existence. Inconvenience is no excuse. There’s no time to hesitate for fear of being impolite, and we can’t be deterred by worries about getting our hands soiled. It’s too late for that.

In Promulgations, Simple fantasizes about what he would do if he had the chance to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Simple decides that he “would make Governor Faubus go to school again in Little Rock and study with them integrated students there and learn all over again the facts of life.” There, the infamous segregationist would not only have to experience the very race mixing he despises, but also learn his constitutional history. Simple’s ruling:

I decrees now and from here on out that you straighten up and fly right.  Cast off your mask of ignorance and hate and go study your history.  You have not yet learned that ‘taxation without representation is tyranny,’ which I learned in grade school.  You have also not learned that “all men are created equal,” which I learned before I quit school.  Educate yourself, Faubus, so that you can better rule your state.

Simple’s solution improves upon the integration remedies actually ordered in real life by ensuring that violators are re-educated. It emerges out of a jurisprudence of the literal, where the violator of equality is forced bodily to endure the race mixing he so deplores. His brand of poetic justice will be far too radical for mainstream tastes, but it contains just enough practical wisdom to generate debate about what it would take for racism to be vanquished in America.

Many of the possibilities for meaningful equality Hughes raises in his writings, but never answers in a satisfying fashion. Even so, his reticence to pick among potential solutions doesn’t diminish his contributions to our legal culture. It just means that the task of the artist is different than that of a judge or policymaker: to stimulate the political imagination and push us to keep more possible answers on the table rather than reach for the lowest common denominator.


About the Author:

Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University. He is the author of America’s Forgotten Constitutions: Defiant Visions of Power and Community (Harvard 2014). His next book, Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation, will be published by W.W. Nortion in February 2019. Follow him on Twitter.