On February 1, 1902, poet, novelist, playwright, autobiographer, writer of children’s books, and essayist Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri. Although both of his parents were of mixed racial heritage, his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, with whom he spent most of his childhood, helped Hughes to develop a positive sense of African American identity. This identity is what sets him apart from his peers and as one of the most important American writers.
By the time Hughes enrolled at Columbia University, he had already launched his literary career with his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921) in The Crisis, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1930, Hughes’ first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon Gold Metal for Literature. After that, he kept writing about everyday struggles of the African American people during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the Jim Crow Era.
In January of 1943, his stories featuring a character called Jesse B. Simple (sometimes spelled as “Semple) began appearing in Hughes’s column for The Chicago Defender. Through the character’s humor and insight on racial issues, Hughes continued to draw vivid sketches of African American culture and community and average, everyday people are living there. His short essay, “Bop,” is an example of these distinct sketches.
Hughes’ “Bop” can be categorized as a dialogue, rather than as an essay. In the dialogue, while Simple plays a part of dictating his own theory about the origin of Be-bop music, “I,” the first person character, plays that of making a comment on it. This dialogical haggling between the two is a typical structure that can be found in most of Simple’s stories.
In “Bop,” the narrator’s views and commentary function to correspond (but not undermine) Simple’s somewhat ethnocentric view on Be-bop music: Simple said, “‘Be-bop is the real thing like the colored people.’ ‘You bring race into everything,’ I said, ‘even music.’ ‘It is in everything,’ said Simple.”
In spite of his ethnocentric tendency, Simple’s fascinating narrative succeeds in making a serious racial issue humorous and impressive without underestimating its significance. In effect, brief as it is, this dialectical piece attracts a reader’s attention to African American culture at the same time it subverts a monolithic view on the racial issue.
The late 1940’s are defined as the end of World War II and the beginning of Cold War. The Second Red Scare occurred after World War II, coinciding with increased popular fear of communist espionage consequent to a Soviet Eastern Europe, the Berlin Blockade (1948–49), the Chinese Civil War, the confessions of spying for the Soviet Union given by several high-ranking U.S. government officials, and the Korean Conflict.
The Chicago Defender, which was founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, targeted an African American audience. Hughes wrote hundreds of essays and stories during his long relationship with the paper. The Defender on November 19, 1949 comments in the column, “Our Opinion,” on the election of the previous week in New York, won by the democrat candidate supporting the Fair Deal program of the president Truman.
Be-Bop music, which was to mark the beginning of modern jazz, grew out of the big band era toward the end of the 1940s.
Hughes’s “Bop,” whose original title is “Simple Declares Be-Bop Music Comes From Bop! Bop! Bop! Mop!,”
appeared in The Chicago Defender on November 19, 1949. Later, the piece was included in the collection, The Best of Simple (1961).
The difference between the original piece and the anthologized version is the tense of verb in which Simple narrates a racial situation around Be-Bop music. In the original version, Simple states the situation in the present tense. Simple in the original version is making an “on-the-spot” inspection.On the other hand, Simple in the anthologized version is, in effect, relating the “history” of the Be-Bop by using the past tense. Added to the newer version is a conversation: “Anyway, Be-Bop is passé, gone, finished.” “It may be gone, but…” (190).
Thus, Simple in the original deals with an ongoing phenomenon in African American culture, while Simple in the newer version describes Be-bop retrospectively as an African American tradition.
Hughes, Langston. “Simple Declares Be-Bop Music Comes From Bop! Bop! Bop! Mop!” The Chicago Defender, November 19, 1949. 6.
——. “Bop” The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. 190-192.
Text and images: Kentaro Tabata.