Langston Hughes: Simple’s White Slaves

Simple’s in the barbershop, and this is what he says:


“I set in that barber chair, thinkin about how much God must love poor folks because he made so many of them in my image. You know, as long as I’ve been poor, I’m not yet used to it. My papa were poor before me, and my grandpa were poorer than that. Being a slave, he did not even own his own self. So, I was settin’ in that barber chair thinkin’ some day the time might come when I will own my old master’s grandson, since him – nor none of his white relations – won’t let me get hold of nothin’ else.”


“What on earth are you talkin’ about?” I asked. “Reinstating slavery? Are you out of your mind?”


“I were thought of dozin’ and dreamin’ whilst he cut my hair,” said Simple, “and in snoozin’ and I kept thinkin’ how I been readin’ so much about this here Centennial on the Civil War on stuff the white folks intending to celebrate in honour of the North and South, and they’re going to put on parades and meetings and battles and things like they were hundred years ago. One way of makin’ people remember what that Civil War were all about, might be to bring back slavery, for a month or two, only this time, reverse it! Make the white folks the slaves, and me the master. I would like to own some of them white Simples on my grandma’s side, which were the ones, I understand, that gave me my name.”


“Ooooh, I would like to own a few white folks just once. Maybe I could work out of them some of the money that they owe my great grandfolks that they never did pay. Else make up for these low wages, which I’m getting right now. I would like to own me some rich white slaves, not used to workin’ like me for hardly enough to pay income tax when April comes, let alone Harlem rents, and balancin’ your budget.”


“Dream on,” I said.


“From dawn, until long after dark, I would find something for them white folks to do,” said Simple. “If I owned ’em. And come end of the week, not pay them a cent. That would be a real good way, I figure, to celebrate this Centennial. Make it real, not just play-actin’. But bring slavery back to its old doorstep. One hundred years. It is time to turn the tables. But don’t you know, whilst I was dreamin’ all this, the barber cut my hair too short?”


“It looks alright to me,” I said. “In fact I would say, for you, the less hair, the better.”


“I might have bad hair,” said Simple, “but I gotta a good shaped head.”


This poem seems a lot more sinister, at first, than it actually ends up being. Langston Hughes wrote it for a weekly column he published in the Chicago Defender, and read it during a conversation he had with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and a couple other figures, below (to have been in that room!) He speaks at around 31:35 about what prompted him to write the poem, and he begins reading it at around 32:04. Note the laughter in the room. Simple is not actually proposing white slavery. Or is he? Maybe just for a moment, to repay some debts, and help whites understand how it really was for blacks, during?

Art provokes. Good art makes you think; says and does things that cannot be said and done in other spheres of life. I have great admiration for those who can be much more creative with their words, than I.


T. M. G.