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


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.

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  1. Donald Robinson, ‘If H-Bombs Fall …’, Saturday Evening Post, 25 May 1957, 110, quoted in

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  2. Margot A. Henrikson, Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 283.

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  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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  5. See also James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), 88.

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  6. Paul Gilroy, The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (London: Verso, 1993), 36–39.

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  10. Historians disagree as to whether this constituted pointless slaughter or the saving of tens of millions of lives.

  11. Albert E. Stone, Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 38.

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  13. 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).

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  14. Hughes, Best of Simple, 202.

  15. Langston Hughes, Simple’s Uncle Sam (New York: Hill and Wang, 1965), 122.

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  16. Ibid., 123.

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  17. Ibid., 123.

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  28. Hughes, Uncle Sam, 54.

  29. Ibid., 55.

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  31. Hughes, Uncle Sam, 54.

  32. Ibid., 54–55.

  33. Gilroy, Black Atlantic, 201–205.

  34. Hughes, Best of Simple, 213.

  35. Ibid., 212.

  36. Hughes, Uncle Sam, 55.

  37. Ibid., 33.

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  40. Ibid., 33–34.

  41. Ibid., 35–36.

  42. Henrikson, Dr. Strangelove’s America, 193–203.

  43. Ibid., 215.

  44. Sharp, ‘The White Man’s Bomb’, 161–164.

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  47. . Produced and written by Christopher Sykes, BBC2, 12 November 2003.

  48. Quoted in Shohat and Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism, 110.

  49. 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.

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  50. Hughes, Uncle Sam, 28.

  51. Ibid., 29.

  52. Destination Moon. Directed by Irving Pichel. Eagle-Lion Films, 1950.

  53. Invaders from Mars. Directed by William Cameron Menzies. Twentieth-Century Fox, 1953.

  54. Hughes, Uncle Sam, 28–29

  55. Hughes, Best of Simple, 55.

  56. Ibid., 56–57.

  57. Ibid., 57.

  58. See Gilroy, Against Race, 326–356.

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Paul Williams lectures in English and American Studies, and his work has tracked how the idea of race and the assumptions of colonialism resurface in the representation of modern and future war. He has written on the Vietnam War film genre, the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima Mon Amour, and the relationship between hip-hop culture and the War on Terror.

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Williams, P. Physics made Simple: the image of nuclear weapons in the writing of Langston Hughes. J Transatl Stud 6, 131–141 (2008).

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  • Simple
  • nuclear
  • technology
  • atomic bomb
  • race
  • racism