Advertisement

Journal of Transatlantic Studies

, Volume 6, Issue 2, pp 131–141 | Cite as

Physics made Simple: the image of nuclear weapons in the writing of Langston Hughes

  • Paul Williams
Article

Abstract

Drawing upon the Simple stories written by Langston Hughes in the post-war period, this paper argues that Hughes repeatedly drew upon nuclear technology as part of a symbolic vocabulary that articulated American racial injustice, both within and outside the United States. For the character Simple, nuclear weapons are white weapons, deployed in defence of white interests, and whose use has been informed by hierarchies of racial difference. However, this technology also provides potent evidence that Hughes juxtaposes against claims of white racial superiority: how can white America continue to assert its racial maturity, while building weapons capable of extinguishing human life from the planet? Ultimately, the character of Simple asserts that non-military nuclear technology can help construct a future beyond race.

Keywords

Simple nuclear technology atomic bomb race racism 

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    Donald Robinson, ‘If H-Bombs Fall …’, Saturday Evening Post, 25 May 1957, 110, quoted inGoogle Scholar
  2. 1a.
    Margot A. Henrikson, Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 283.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    In this paper, I have used ‘atomic’ in reference to the first generation of nuclear weapons (‘a-bombs’), and ‘nuclear’ for both the hydrogen bombs developed in the early 1950s and the earlier atomic weapons. However, in the Simple stories themselves, this distinction is not always accurately defined, and I have tried to reproduce Simple’s choice of language where appropriate.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    I am alive to the issues surrounding the use of terms such as ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ to denote supposedly different racial groups, discussed at length in the work of, amongst others, Richard Dyer. I hope readers will tolerate their continued use in this paper, though not as confirmation of their capability to constitute a social reality, as critiqued in Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 57. Rather, these terms are used with a critical awareness that the perception, and self-perception, of racial identity remains a potent and alluring ‘delusion’, and a crucial area of contestation in Hughes’s writing.Google Scholar
  5. 3a.
    See also James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 88.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), 36–39.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘Negro’s War Gains and Losses’, Chicago Defender, 15 September 1945, quoted inGoogle Scholar
  8. 5a.
    Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age, 2nd edn (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994), 269.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Baldwin, Fire Next Time, 67.Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    Historians disagree as to whether this constituted pointless slaughter or the saving of tens of millions of lives.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Albert E. Stone, Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 38.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Langston Hughes, The Best of Simple (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961), 210–211.Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Ibid., 201. Dates given in brackets for the Simple stories refer to the year of publication in collected editions rather than the original date of publication in the Chicago Defender. Hughes extensively revised the stories for these collected editions, a process documented in Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 202.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    Langston Hughes, Simple’s Uncle Sam (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965), 122.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    Ibid., 123.Google Scholar
  17. 14.
    Ibid., 123.Google Scholar
  18. 15.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 201.Google Scholar
  19. 16.
    Baldwin, Fire Next Time, 77.Google Scholar
  20. 17.
    Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (London: Routledge, 1994), 2–3.Google Scholar
  21. 18.
    Henrikson, Dr. Strangelove’s America, 283.Google Scholar
  22. 19.
    Langston Hughes, Selected Poems (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1999) (originally published 1959),.Google Scholar
  23. 20.
    Hughes, Selected Poems, 280.Google Scholar
  24. 21.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 211.Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Patrick Berton Sharp, ‘The White Man’s Bomb: Race and Nuclear Apocalypse Narrative in American Culture’ (dissertation, University of California Santa Barbara, 1999), 24.Google Scholar
  26. 23.
    Sharp, ‘The White Man’s Bomb’, 24.Google Scholar
  27. 24.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 211.Google Scholar
  28. 25.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 54.Google Scholar
  29. 26.
    Ibid., 55.Google Scholar
  30. 27.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 211.Google Scholar
  31. 28.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 54.Google Scholar
  32. 29.
    Ibid., 54–55.Google Scholar
  33. 30.
    Gilroy, Black Atlantic, 201–205.Google Scholar
  34. 31.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 213.Google Scholar
  35. 32.
    Ibid., 212.Google Scholar
  36. 33.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 55.Google Scholar
  37. 34.
    Ibid., 33.Google Scholar
  38. 35.
    Bertrand Russell, ‘The Case for British Nuclear Disarmament’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (March 1962), in The Atomic Age ed. Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch (New York: Basic Books, 1963), 292.Google Scholar
  39. 36.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 98.Google Scholar
  40. 37.
    Ibid., 33–34.Google Scholar
  41. 38.
    Ibid., 35–36.Google Scholar
  42. 39.
    Henrikson, Dr. Strangelove’s America, 193–203.Google Scholar
  43. 40.
    Ibid., 215.Google Scholar
  44. 41.
    Sharp, ‘The White Man’s Bomb’, 161–164.Google Scholar
  45. 42.
    Richard S. Leghorn, ‘A Rational World Security System’, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (June 1957), in Atomic Age, ed. Grodzins and Rabinowitch, 260.Google Scholar
  46. 43.
    H. Bruce Franklin, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 183.Google Scholar
  47. 44.
    . Produced and written by Christopher Sykes, BBC2, 12 November 2003.Google Scholar
  48. 45.
    Quoted in Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, 110.Google Scholar
  49. 46.
    Alice Walker, ‘Only Justice Can Stop a Curse’, in Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, 2nd edn, ed. Barbara Smith (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000),. This speech was delivered at the Anti-Nuke Rally, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA, 16 March 1982.Google Scholar
  50. 47.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 28.Google Scholar
  51. 48.
    Ibid., 29.Google Scholar
  52. 49.
    Destination Moon. Directed by Irving Pichel. Eagle-Lion Films, 1950.Google Scholar
  53. 50.
    Invaders from Mars. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1953.Google Scholar
  54. 51.
    Hughes, Uncle Sam, 28–29Google Scholar
  55. 52.
    Hughes, Best of Simple, 55.Google Scholar
  56. 53.
    Ibid., 56–57.Google Scholar
  57. 54.
    Ibid., 57.Google Scholar
  58. 55.
    See Gilroy, Against Race, 326–356.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Taylor & Francis 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Paul Williams
    • 1
  1. 1.American Studies, School of Humanities, Faculty of ArtsUniversity of PlymouthUK

Personalised recommendations