Undertone Langston Hughes is considered to be one of the most well known poets/writers in the modern era. One of his most notable works was a series of fictional short stories called Tales of Simple. In these tales, Hughes uses symbolism to express his feelings and views on African American history through the character Jesse B. Semple. In literary terms, the word “symbolism” is defined as being a person, object or event that suggests more than its literal meaning.
In Langston Hughes’ “Tales of Simple”, the author uses the main character’s name, feet and view on a type of Jazz music to symbolize the life of an African American and the effect of slavery, discrimination and racism on blacks. One of the first examples of symbolism that Langston Hughes uses is the naming of the main character in the tales: Jesse B. Semple. Hughes explains that it would be “impossible to live in Harlem and not know at least a hundred Simples…” (97).
Hughes chose the name Simple to symbolize the average man’s perspective the tales were being told from. By doing this, Hughes gives the readers a constant reminder of the character’s background and social makeup. This reminder also shows how African Americans during that time viewed and approached things in life. Hughes also uses the name Simple to showcase the state of mind and the effect the hard life African Americans endured because of lack of bare necessities in their lives. The name Simple is an example of symbolism in and of itself.
However, the symbolism displayed through the main character throughout the book is most prominently displayed by repeated references about his feet. Simple’s feet symbolize the hardships that he has faced, the experiences in his life, and in general, encompasses everything about him and his life. Hughes writes in his tale Feet Live Their Own Life, “If you want to know about my life don’t look at my face, don’t look at my hands. Look at my feet and see if you can tell how long I been standing on them” (99). This quote by Simple describes the symbolic importance of a man’s feet.
The point Hughes makes was that a black man during that time was focused on work and providing for himself and his family. And work was done while standing. Hughes shows that the true tale of an African American was at the physical foundation of a person: the feet. The symbolic nature of Simples’ feet goes beyond the mindset of African Americans at that time. Hughes uses Simple’s feet to symbolize the poverty experienced by blacks. These feet have walked ten thousand miles working for white folks and another ten thousand keeping up with the colored.
These feet have stood at altars, crap tables, free lunches, bars, graves, kitchen doors, betting windows, hospital clinics, WPA desks, social security railings, and in all kinds of lines from soup lines to the draft. (100) As the title of the tale states, Simple’s feet do have their own life. Not only do Simple’s feet showcase the “thousands of miles working for white folks,” but they also tell the tales of where he has been when not working. All of the aforementioned places are either associated with poverty or things viewed as aid by society.
Hughes uses this to symbolize the negative connotation attached to African Americans because of the poverty most encountered at the time. Langston Hughes symbolizes the life of hard labor lived by a black man through the continued reference to Simple’s feet: “The corns I’ve cut away would dull a German razor. The bunions I forgot would make you ache from now till Judgment Day” (100). Simple is describing the physical toll the hard labor has taken on him. Hughes’ use of such a strong metaphor emphasizes his point of the profound effect slavery, racism and discrimination has taken on African Americans.
While this is more of a metaphor, the common symbolic feature is once again…Simple’s feet. Simple’s feet being physically worn down is not the final thing about his feet. Simple talks about how he can be summed up by the shoes he wears:” Can’t you tell by the shoes I wear-not pointed, not rocking-chair, not French-toed, not nothing but big, long, broad, and flat—that I been standing on these feet a long time and carry some heavy burdens? ” (99). Hughes directly explains the symbolism of his shoes to illustrate once again the working nature of Simple and the average man he represents.
Hughes uses one other prominent symbolic example to describe the life of an African American. The author showcases how the history of slavery and suffering has affected African Americans by Simple’s explanation of the origins of Be-Bop music: “From the police beating Negroes’ heads. Every time a cop hits a Negro with his billy club, that old club say, ‘BOP! BOP!… BE-BOP!… MOP!… BOP! ’…That’s where Be-Bop came from, beaten right out of some Negro’s head into them horns and saxophones and piano keys that plays it. (104-105) The quote by Simple in the tale Bop displays how Simple views the origin of Be-Bop music, and how they are mildly misconstrued. The term “bop” is defined in Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “jazz characterized by harmonic complexity, convoluted melodic lines, and constant shifting of accent and often played at very rapid tempos”. The origins of Be-Bop are based on these things and the improvisation of the artist. Whether it is a lack of knowledge or a skewed view of life, to Simple this is an example of police brutality.
This goes to show the distorted viewpoint his experiences have given him. Hughes’ use of symbolism throughout Tales of Simple is the main literary technique used in this collection of work. Hughes symbolizes the view of an African American through most notably the feet of Simple. Hughes goes as far as explaining the symbolism in such a direct way so as to ensure his point is understood by the reader. It is this direct commentary and giving of specific examples that I believe almost takes away some of the symbolic content by not letting the reader discern this for him or herself.