Simple On Indian Blood by Langston Hughes, 1950
The magic trick:
Building the story around a running joke that has Simple attributing a lot of his character traits to his Indian heritage
The title probably gives you a clue – this story is just straight comedy. Not much in the way of wisdom or social pontification. It’s just really funny. It also relies one of my very favorite kinds of jokes, the one where someone gets something wrong, gets corrected but doesn’t pay attention and so continues to make the same mistake over and over.
In this case, Simple claims to have Indian blood. He also claims that it’s this heritage that is to blame for his quick temper. The narrator, always the voice of reason in these stories, suggests that maybe there are some holes in Simple’s logic. But of course, Simple only ramps up his philosophical flow even stronger, and it’s laugh out loud funny. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
“So your grandpa was a drinking man, too. That must be whom you take after.”
“I also am named after him,” said Simple. “Grandpa’s name was Jess, too. So I am Jesse B. Semple.”
“What does the B stand for?”
“Nothing. I just put it there myself since they didn’t give me no initial when I was born. I am really Jess Semple – which the kids changed around into a nickname when I were in school. In fact, they used to tease me when I were small, calling me ‘Simple Simon.’ But I was right handy with my fists, and after I beat the ‘Simon’ out of a few of them, they let me alone. But my friends still call me ‘Simple.’”
“In reality, you are Jess Semple,” I said, “colored.”
“Part Indian,” insisted Simple, reaching for his beer.
“Jess is certainly not an Indian name.”
“No, it ain’t,” said Simple, “but we did have a Hiawatha in our family. She died.”
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