Simple On Military Integration by Langston Hughes, 1953
The magic trick:
Using comedy as an entry point to a serious civil rights story
Simple conjures up a dream in this one that is just about perfect. It encapsulates everything that makes the Simple stories so great.
The entry point to his imagined scenario is ridiculous. He is hung up on the notion of medals. He wants to see a black officer pin a medal on a white soldier. Among all the considerations of race and war and everything else, this is the point he keeps coming back to. It seems comical.
But is it?
As he goes on, it’s clear that this vision of his is incredibly valid. It’s not absurd at all. It’s important. His is a vision of true integration, not just lip service. Like the best Simple stories, it is a vital and persuasive perspective on civil rights, race relations and American history delivered with comedy and wit. And that’s quite a trick on Hughes’s part.
“I can see myself now in World War III,” said Simple, “leading my Mississippi troops into action. I would do like all the other generals do, and stand way back on a hill somewheres and look through my spyglasses and say, ‘Charge on! Mens, charge on!’ Then I would watch them Dixiecrat boys go – like true sons of the old South, mowing down the enemy.
“When my young white lieutenants from Vicksburg jeeped back to Headquarters to deliver their reports in person to me, they would say, ‘General Captain, sir, we have taken two more enemy positions.’
“I would say, ‘Mens, return to your companies – and tell ‘em to charge on!’
“Next day, when I caught up to ‘em, I would pin medals on their chests for bravery. Then I would have my picture taken in front of all my fine white troops – me – the first black American general to pin medals on white soldiers from Mississippi. It would be in every paper in the world – the great news event of World War III.”
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