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Critical Essay by Rita B. Dandridge
SOURCE: "The Black Woman as a Freedom Fighter in Langston Hughes's Simple Uncle Sam," in CLA Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2, pp. 273-83.
In the following essay, Dandridge explores the portrayal of women as active civil rights freedom fighters in Simple Uncle Sam.
Despite her historical significance, the black woman as a fighter for the liberation of her people from racial injustice is just beginning to emerge as an important character in the literature of black American writers. She appears as a devoted Negro maid who becomes a revolutionary killer in Ed Bullins' play, "The Gentleman Caller" (1968). In Ted Shine's play, "Contribution" (1968), Mrs. Love, who is in her seventies, befriends whites opposed to the black man's struggle for freedom and then poisons them by putting "special seasoning" in the food she gives them. Nettie McCray's play, "Growin' into Blackness" (1969), introduces Pearl, an articulate black nationalist, who urges her girlfriends to fight against the genocidal tactics of the white man by having babies in order to build a strong black nation for the future. The final pages of Ernest Gaines' novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), focus on Miss Jane, a one-hundred-and eight-year-old ex-slave, who protests with others in her community the jailing of a black girl who drank from a water fountain intended for whites only.
Although the black woman as a freedom fighter has begun to get her due in the literature of black American writers, the most strikingly realistic descriptions of black female freedom fighters remain those of Langston Hughes in Simple's Uncle Sam. This is no accident because Hughes was consciously aware of the important role of the black female freedom fighter to whom he has paid tribute in several of his works. He includes a biographical sketch of Harriet Tubman, whom he calls "the Moses of her people," in Famous American Negroes (1954). Biographical sketches of Harriet Tubman and Ida B. Wells appear among those of advocates of freedom in Famous Negro Heroes of America (1958). In Fight for Freedom (1962), he weaves biographical sketches of Daisy Bates and Lillie Jackson into the historical narrative of the NAACP. In 1967, he dedicated his last volume of verse, The Panther and the Lash, to Rosa Parks, who, in refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, precipitated the boycott of the Montgomery buses in 1955.
Aware then of the black woman's historical significance, Hughes was able in his fiction to show that black women, no less than black men, have fought racial injustice in a variety of ways. We see this particularly in his novel, Simple's Uncle Sam, where the female relatives of the main character, Jesse B. Semple (commonly called Simple), include an accommodationist, a non-violent integrationist, and a militant black nationalist. The tactics they employ as freedom fighters enable Joyce, the accommodationist; Lynn Clarisse, the non-violent integrationist; and Minnie, the militant nationalist; to function as counterparts to Booker T. Washington, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, respectively. By including the stratagems used by these females, Hughes is able to bring into focus the various approaches to racial equality taken by black men and black women for more than half of the twentieth century.
Simple's wife, Joyce, is the first female freedom fighter encountered in Simple's Uncle Sam. She is a modern, urban counterpart of Booker T. Washington, the leading spokesman of his race at the turn of the twentieth century. Seeking to transcend the limited existence imposed upon her as a poor black woman living in the ghetto of Harlem, Joyce uses Washington's accommodationist approach to racial justice. She diligently prepares herself by hard work and self-help to be accepted by white America. She educates herself, saves her money to buy a home and tries to get her black neighbors to better themselves. By her actions she closely resembles Washington, who believed in and lived by his saying that "Brains, property, and character for the Negro will settle the question of civil rights. The best course to pursue in regard to the civil rights bill in the South is to let it alone; let it alone and it will settle itself."
Both Washington and Joyce stress the importance of an education related to the world in which they live. Not wanting to be an illiterate in a society of literate men, Washington taught himself how to read and write, went to free schools when he was not working in the salt furnaces and coal mines of West Virginia and then worked his way through Hampton Institute, where he received a liberal education. As an educator at Tuskegee Institute, he prepared his Southern black students to meet the challenge of their rural environment by training them to be farmers, craftsmen and teachers. An urbanite, living within the cultural capital of America, Joyce educates herself by developing her aesthetic interest. Despite her job outside the home and her numerous household chores, she still finds time to read librettos of operas and then drags Simple downtown to Carnegie Hall to operatic performances. She also attends lectures on various subjects and takes an avid interest in painting. Though Washington emphasized the practical and utilitarian aspect of education while Joyce stresses the aesthetic, both are similar in that they apply themselves to acquire the knowledge which will enable them to make a meaningful adjustment in their surroundings and win the respect of the larger environment.
For Joyce, as it was for Washington, an education includes developing character. She is particularly anxious to improve the behavior of her neighbors, the "unurbanized Negroes" who have migrated to Harlem from the South, just as Washington was interested in improving the morals of the rural Southern black who lacked standards by which to mold his character. She reminds Simple that "To act right yourself is not enough. You must also help others to act right". Weary of the "unurbanized Negro … throwing garbage out the window, sweeping trash in the street, fussing on the stoop, and cussing on the corner," Joyce joins the women's auxiliary of the Urban League, "which has done much to help transpose the rural Negro to big-city ways". She spends long hours in the library gathering information for her Club's project on "how to take the country out of the Negro," and after completing her library research, she solicits Simple's aid in forming a Block Club to keep her block in Harlem clean. Joyce's efforts to improve the social behaviour of her neighbors parallel Washington's attempts to socially uplift blacks by emphasizing cleanliness, good conduct, self-discipline and respectability, all of which, he felt, are necessary for the black man to be accepted by white America.
The extreme manifestation of Joyce's desire to overcome racial inequality is her adept managing of household finances. Just as Washington cautioned blacks to be thrifty, Joyce urges Simple not to spend so much money for beer, and she refuses to include as little as a dollar in the budget for his beer habit. Instead, she saves her money for a home in the suburbs—a home away from the rat-infested tenements of black Harlem, a home with "wall-to-wall carpets and a chandelier … a porch and a porch swing…". She tells Simple that "America has got two cultures, which should not be divided as they now is, so let's leave Harlem". Similar to Washington, Joyce looks upon the acquisition of property as a means of advancing her social status, and her emphasis on thrift to improve her living condition echoes Washington's insistence that the advancement of the black man in various areas of life depends upon his economic progress.
As an accommodationist constantly improving herself and trying to get others to do the same in order to be accepted by the white world, Joyce, as Washington was, is a very tactful person, careful to avoid any friction between the two races. On the delicate issue of mixed marriage, for instance, she is quick to voice her dislike for marriages between blacks and whites: "It is living in sin for a colored man to marry anybody related to Talmadge, Eastland, Wallace, Sheriff Clark, and Satan—and all white folks bears kinship". Her professed opposition to intermarriages seems a modern version of the firm stand against the socializing of the two races held by Washington in his Atlanta Exposition Address. Washington said, "In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Even Simple fails to understand the reasoning of his wife, who gives money to CORE and the NAACP and "Yet get mad when she sees integration [a mixed couple] in action". He is unaware that Joyce's motive for working behind the scenes (as Washington often did) donating money to end segregation and her refusal to condone a defiant display of race mixing are to avoid any public indiscretion that would bring disagreement between the races. Though a very proud woman, she is yet a paradoxical one who, similar to Washington, implies by her actions that the policy of conciliation will gain more for her race in the long run than anything else and that upward striving rather than social conflict is the key to racial justice.
Hughes's second female freedom fighter is Lynn Clarisse, Simple's cousin and a counterpart of Martin Luther King, who was catapulted into national prominence as a civil rights leader in the middle 1950's when he successfully organized and led a boycott of the segregated buses of Montgomery, Alabama. Both Lynn Clarisse and King have middle-class backgrounds. Lynn Clarisse is the daughter of a wealthy Virginia mortician; King was the son of a respected and well-to-do Georgia preacher. Both are products of elite Southern black colleges. Lynn Clarisse is a Fisk University student; King matriculated at Morehouse. More important to this discussion, however, is that, in briefly depicting her as a female King, Hughes appropriately draws Lynn Clarisse from the mass of black college students who were influenced by King and protested in the early 1960's, via sit-ins, freedom rides and mass marches their dissatisfaction with the progress of desegregation in Southern facilities.
Similar to King, Lynn Clarisse firmly believes in equal justice for black and white Americans and employs the tactic of non-violent persuasion to achieve this end. She participates in freedom rides, one of which in Alabama leaves her with a broken shoulder and scarred neck, after she is beaten with a policeman's billy club (p. 84). Despite the temporary setbacks of her struggle for racial justice, Lynn Clarisse, like King, who was a victim of threats, beatings and mob violence, never allows her courage to dissipate. She steels herself to meet the challenge of the next demonstration. In this novel, she looks forward to protesting against the South's denial of political rights to blacks by participating non-violently in voter registration drives.
Lynn Clarisse's passive endurance of the blows inflicted upon her in the Alabama freedom ride and her benevolent desire to face the possibility of similar harassment in a voter registration drive call to mind the two sources which inspired King as a freedom fighter—Gandhi's passive resistance and Christian motivation. By manifesting goodwill and brotherly love in her non-violent struggle for freedom, Lynn Clarisse, similar to King, is able to dramatize the grievances of her race, show the wrongdoings of white Southern racists against blacks to be unjustifiable and allow her oppressors ample opportunity to correct their wrongdoings. Her willingness to suffer the pain inflicted upon her by white racists suggests a faith in man similar to that held by King, who said, "There is within human nature something that can respond to goodness." Moreover, by holding no grudges against those who mistreat her, she gives direction to what Martin Luther King considered to be the ultimate solution to racism:
Desegregation will break down the legal barriers and bring men together physically, but … fears, prejudice, pride and irrationality, which are barriers to a truly integrated society … will be removed only as men [black and white] are possessed by the invisible law which etches on their hearts the conviction that all men are brothers and that love is mankind's most potent weapon for personal and social transformation.
When Lynn Clarisse goes to New York City for a cultural visit during the summer, it becomes evident that her freedom of movement there is what she has been fighting for in the South. She independently moves into Greenwich Village and becomes an accepted resident there. She freely associates with all the artists "white and colored, and the jazz peoples and the writers". She takes advantage of the opportunity to see her people perform in plays which, she says, "will hardly be touring down South". Her unhampered mobility in the large city, which she has never visited before, seems intended by Hughes to be representative of the black man's ultimate exemption from the restrictions placed on his civil rights which Martin Luther King dreamed of.
Lynn Clarisse is succeeded by Minnie, the most developed of the three females and a counterpart of Malcolm X, the self-appointed black nationalist spokesman, who emerged during the militant black liberation movement of the 1960's exhorting black Americans to unite in fighting for the common goal of liberation and the control of the economic, social and political forces in their communities. Minnie and Malcolm have similar backgrounds preceding their conversions to militant activism. An illiterate Southern transplant who migrates North looking for freedom, Minnie discovers that once in Harlem, the black Mecca, she is still a victim of racial oppression and can find employment involving only menial tasks. The young Malcolm, ill-prepared to do more than servant's work, also migrated to Harlem, via Boston, after living in Lansing, Michigan, where his family originally moved from Omaha, Nebraska, in search of freedom, but where his father was allegedly murdered by white racists and his mother was declared insane by white welfare agents and the courts. Seeking a way to cope with the difficult circumstances of life, Minnie eventually becomes a hustler, who lives off the money she sweet-talks from her various Harlem boyfriends and works only when it is necessary "to keep her head above water". A clever and conniving woman, she maintains friendship with one man until his money runs out, and then she leaves him and searches for another "kind of lifeboat or lifeguard." By fleecing her unsuspecting boyfriends for survival, Minnie is comparable to Malcolm, who, discovering himself to be a victim of racial oppression while living in Harlem, economically exploited blacks as a thief, pimp, and dope peddler. Trying to keep up her courage, Minnie frequents bars and drinks heavily, just as Malcolm stayed high on narcotics. Both emulate whites, who instill in them the values of a racist society: Minnie crowns her head with an expensive blond wig, which she thinks makes her look like a movie star, and Malcolm wore his hair processed. Observing Minnie closely and disgustingly, her cousin, Simple, concludes that she is "a disgrace to the race."
After spending six years of a ten-year term in jail, where he discovered Allah and the religion of Islam, and after living a few years in Detroit as a Black Muslim minister, Malcolm undergoes a second transformation; he becomes a militant black nationalist. Comparably, Minnie undergoes metamorphosis after living in Harlem for ten years, where she becomes more and more disillusioned and frustrated by the unfulfilled promises of freedom. She ceases being a helpless character and explodes into a militant activist. In their new roles as black nationalists, Malcolm and Minnie wear their hair au natural (an affirmation of their true and beautiful black selves), and both become concerned with the oppressive conditions of the black community. Both attack the most visible sign of white oppression in Harlem—the policeman. Malcolm opposed policemen who perpetuate social degradation by accepting graft from persons involved in gambling, prostitution, and dope peddling. During a Harlem riot protesting the killing of a fifteen-year-old black boy by a white policeman, Minnie attacks a white cop beating a defenseless old black man who does not move on fast enough when ordered to. Though she accidentally receives a head wound from a flying bottle not meant for her and is taken to Harlem Hospital to be treated, she later tells her friends that "It is a good thing that bottle struck me down, or I would of tore that cop's head every way but loose."
Minnie believes in being non-violent "when the other parties are non-violent, too,…" but says, "I did not come to Harlem to look a white army of white cops in the face and let them tell me I can't be free in my own black neighborhood on my own black street in the very year when the Civil Rights Bill says you shall be free." She implies that the use of violence is necessary to achieve justice for the black man when the tactic of non-violence fails, and in this respect she echoes Malcolm, who said:
I am for violence if non-violence means we continue postponing a solution to the American black man's problem—just to avoid violence. I don't go for non-violence if it means a delayed solution. To me a delayed solution is a non-solution. Or I'll say it another way. If it must take violence to get the black man his human rights in this country, I'm for violence … no matter what the consequences, no matter who was hurt by the violence.
Similar to Malcolm, Minnie is willing to lay her life on the line for freedom. She says, 'I would gladly die for freedom and come back to haunt white folks."
Not only does Minnie want police brutality stopped in her community, but she also wants political oppression to cease. She and Malcolm X consider the chief political opponents to the progress of the blackman's freedom to be Negroes acting as political stooges for a corrupt democracy. Showing scorn for such persons, Malcolm said:
So America's strategy is the same strategy as that which was used in the past by the colonial powers: divide and conquer. She plays one Negro leader against the other. She plays one Negro organization against the other. She makes us think we have different objectives, different goals. As soon as one Negro says something, she runs to this Negro and asks him what do you think about what he said. Why anybody can see through that today—except some of the Negro leaders.
Minnie censures Negro leaders who cater to the whims of whites by "advising Harlem to go slow" in attaining its freedom. Unalterably opposed to the stratagem of gradualism advocated by some Negro leaders, she attacks these leaders by first pointing out that whites never told her to go slow at cotton-picking time:
When I was down South picking cotton, didn't a soul tell me to go slow and cool it. "Pick more! Pick more! Can't you pick a bale a day? What's wrong with you?" That's what they said. Did not a soul say, "Wait, don't over-pick yourself." Nobody said slow down in cotton-picking days. So what is this here now? When Negroes are trying to get something for themselves, I must wait, don't demonstrate? I'll tell them big shots. How you sound?
And then she says that whites were never told to go slow when they brought harm to blacks:
Did not a soul tell that man who shot Medgar Evers in the back with a bullet to be cool. Did not a soul say to them hoodlums what slayed them three white and colored boys in Mississippi to cool it. Now they calling me hoodlums up here in Harlem for wanting to be free. Hoodlums? Me, a hoodlum? Not a soul said "hoodlums" about them night riders who ride through the South burning black churches and lighting white crosses. Not a soul said "hoodlums" when the bombs went off in Birmingham and blasted four little Sunday School girls to death, little black Sunday School girls. Not a soul said "hoodlums" when they tied an auto rim to Emmet Till's feet and throwed him in that Mississippi River, a kid just fourteen years old…. Yet them that's supposed to be my leaders tell me, "Give up! Don't demonstrate! Wait!" To tell the truth, I believe my own colored leaders is ashamed of me. So how are they going to lead anybody they are ashamed of? Telling me to be cool. Huh! I'm too hot to be cool—so I guess I will just have to lead my own self—which I will do. I will lead myself.
The militant tone, historical references and informal and impromptu style of Minnie's speech are immediately recognized as characteristics of Malcolm's discourses. And her decision to lead herself is a helpful pointer to Malcolm's idea that Negroes should seek political freedom by organizing independent political parties because the capitalist parties and the two-party system, which put Negro stooges in office, are their enemies. But more significantly, her decision to lead herself is a reminder of the self-help tenet of Malcolm's black nationalist philosophy: "A race of people is like an individual man; until it uses its own talent, takes pride in its own history, expresses its own culture, affirms its own selfhood, it can never fulfill itself."
Langston Hughes's brief descriptions of Joyce, Lynn Clarisse, and Minnie attest to his social awareness that the black woman has not sat on the sidelines during the black liberation struggles of the twentieth century, but has been actively engaged in the fight for her race's freedom. His inclusion of female figures, instead of male ones to serve as counterparts to Washington, King and Malcolm X, enables him to make amends for the oversight of black writers in general who have failed to depict the black woman as a freedom fighter and to assert with a non-chauvinist attitude that the female is just as much needed as the male is in the liberation struggles. Moreover, since Hughes severs his females from the traditional role of black matriarch and engages them in battles for racial justice, they give solidarity to the freedom struggles and aid in creating a sense of urgency to the appeals of the freedom fight. As a social commentator, carefully observant of and objectively reporting on the racial situation in America, Hughes deserves a round of applause for his treatment of the black female freedom fighter who unquestionably represents a powerful force in past, present and future struggles for racial equality in America.
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