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


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.


Simple nuclear technology atomic bomb race racism 


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  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
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    See also James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 88.Google Scholar
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    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
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    . Produced and written by Christopher Sykes, BBC2, 12 November 2003.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Taylor & Francis 2008

Authors and Affiliations

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

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