BY FRANK X WALKER
In honor of Langston Hughes this is a tribute to his Jesse B. Simple column that appeared in the Chicago Defender, New York Post, and other national newspapers for more than 20 years beginning in the 1940s.
Hello stranger! Where you been hiding?” I asked, as Simple strolled into the barbershop after a noticeable absence.
“I been hiding from the Bushes,” he said while looking up and down the street before closing the door and locking it,” and trying to protect my silver rights.”
“I see your dilemma right off,” I said to Simple. “You’re supposed to hide in the bushes, not from them. And don’t you mean your civil rights?”
“You can call your own bread what you want to, but I’m old enough to know that the bottom line on all that King boy’s efforts was more about the color of my wallet, not my skin. And I don’t know why I’m even talking to you youngblood, seeing how it was your advice that has got me in the trouble that I’m in today.”
Everybody in the barbershop who was old enough to know Simple paused, then laughed, acknowledging that Jesse B. Simple had never taken advice from any man. As he settled himself into an empty chair away from the window, I took the bait that he left dangling in the air just for me, as I fancied myself as one of the few brave men or women who would dare swap wits with the master himself.
“Now Simple, what advice would that be,” I ventured.
“Ain’t you the same music hater who come in here last month demanding to switch the radio station to NPR,” he asked.
“Demand is a little strong Mr. Simple. I merely suggested that the new morning show with Tavis Smiley was worth listening to and if a major crisis ever broke out, young folks in general and most black folk would be bobbing their heads while other folks would be safe underground in bunkers.”
“So I see we agree,” he said.
Not wishing to argue I conceded, and he continued his winding way of getting to his point.
“I wasn’t really listening to your talk radio, but I just happened to hear a piece of a story about that bad man in the paper with the Mario Brothers mustache and then your president come on the air talking about how he was more sick and tired than any black woman has ever been and how he was gonna finish what his daddy started and not let no more black South Koreans into the law school up in Michigan.”
“Mr. Simple,” I chuckled, ” I’m afraid you have your news stories a little twisted. The president is itching to kick Saddam’s butt. He is also in a little war of words with North Korea. And he recently spoke out publicly against the University of Michigan’s admission policies, claiming that they are using a quota system, but those are three different stories and you have clearly scrambled all of the facts.”
“It’s not my facts that’s scrambled. It’s your president and talk radio that’s wrong,” he argued before continuing.
“I suppose you gonna tell me that the United Nations ain’t been up and down I-64 since the first snow trying to stop priests from causing a Catholic mass destruction,” he said.
“You’re right Simple. I am. Because the UN inspectors are in Iraq looking for weapons of mass destruction. Your car radio reception must really be very poor,” I said.
“Well it do break up half way between Lexnin’ and the Ville,” he said, “but I knowed I seen a sign that said Baghdad 8 miles when I got off at the Waddy exit to gas up. And I might not have one of them fancy radios like your car, but I can read, damn it. And besides, if they singing about bombs over Baghdad on the radio and war is in-a-minute, why shouldn’t I be worried if I’m out driving on the highway behind all those 18-wheelers knowing one of them could have an axle of evil?”
I was losing my own point in the argument trying to correct Simple’s misnomers, but I was not quite ready to give up. I decided not to say anything about imminent vs. in-a-minute because it didn’t lose that much in the translation, but I had to speak up about the axle.
“Mr. Simple maybe you shouldn’t listen to talk radio. Maybe you should just listen to the oldies station and continue enjoying the safety of the good old days. But just so you know, the axis of evil is a reference the president made regarding a group of foreign countries that threaten world peace and aid terror networks.”
“Well then that’s the onliest thing we agree on ’cause I have been behind a truck on the way to Paris from Versailles when one of them back tires blew out and I tell you it was nothing but terror trying to dodge and weave around that hunk of rubber. And if all President Bush was trying to do was protect me from those tires in the road then maybe I misjudged him. I appreciate him being so concerned about any kind of ‘collateral damage’ to my car that he is willing to make a ‘pre-emptive strike’ but he might wanna choose his words more carefully. Folks around here might get confused and think that he’s out trying to start a war.”
Just as I was searching for my last words before surrendering yet another frustrating exchange, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” came blaring through the tattered speakers in the corner. As we sat stupefied listening to Marvin’s powerfully prophetic lyrics in silence, we all knew that there was already more than enough talk. What all our radios needed was more good music.