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The Book That Changed My Life: Not-So-Simple Semple

The Book That Changed My LifeI began my writing career in the fifth grade, penning rap lyrics, love letters, and short stories. But in the sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Davis, introduced me to the writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. I remember being as fascinated by those writers as I was by the modern-day “poets” at the time, such as Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Rakim. After reading the works of Wallace Thurman (The Blacker the Berry…) and checking out Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, I devoured every piece of Harlem Renaissance literature, verse, and letter that I could possibly consume.

No writer from that period grabbed my attention more than my homeboy, James Mercer Langston Hughes, another of Missouri’s finest. I memorized poems such as “I, Too,” “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Harlem” (“…a dream deferred”), “Still Here,” “Genius Child,” and “My People” (my favorite LH poem). The language was rich yet simple. The prose and verse had an equal amount of vivid color and rhythm. The messages were just as empowering for a black child as was a lyric from Public Enemy’s Chuck D (“Fight the Power”). I read all of the essays, all of the letters, even all of the nonfiction social commentary from Langston. But the works that most inspired me and served as a major source of influence on my writing style were his stories of Jesse B. Semple, better known as “Simple,” which first appeared as a weekly column in the Chicago Defender and then in several other publications and collections.

By the time I was in middle school and high school, I had piles of spiral notebooks filled with drawings, poems, and short stories. I was still trying to find and develop my own voice. I wanted to go next-level after years of writing hip-hop lyrics and romantic, quasi-political, sappy (yet clever) poetry presented as ridiculous youthful wisdom. I wanted to take that jump and write fuller, lengthier stories. My mother took me to the library to check out The Best of Simple. I don’t think I ever brought it back (sorry, Kansas City Public Library). I lost it between high school and college; bought it maybe three or four times. This book helped me figure out story structure, dialogue, and — most importantly — character development.

Jesse was an amalgamation of many real-life characters from Harlem in the 1940s. He was usually down on his luck; couldn’t keep a steady job or a steady woman; and found it challenging to pay his rent. But Jesse was a hustler. Each story was a study in life and survival for an African American man in a large, bustling city in relation to economics, employment, love, and social standing. The Simple stories were funny. They were awash in jazz music, the busy happenings on 125th Street, jilted girlfriends, a bitter ex-wife, and an angry landlady. Jesse’s conversation was poetic. His observations on life and living in the heart of Uptown read like song lyrics, sometimes. This book taught me that readers can get hooked on books in which the protagonist is flawed yet relatable. Real-life language, without getting bogged down in colloquialisms and slang of the era, allows readers to stand there on 135th and Lenox and hear the honking cars, the whistling lips, the clanking of emptied shot glasses, and piano riffs from a block away.

I’m so indebted to Brother Hughes’s contribution to literature, and to my own career, that my firstborn son’s middle name is Langston — Ezra Langston Barnes. And one of my favorite jazz songs of all time, I believe, was inspired by the life of Jesse B. Semple. After reading a few stories from the Simple collection, go check out “A Colloquial Dream (Scenes in the City)” by Charles Mingus, and tell me that you haven’t been transported to Harlem, 1946, or that you don’t want to pick up a pen and paint at least one simple scene from your own magnificent and beautiful life.

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

Derrick Barnes About Derrick Barnes

Derrick Barnes is the Newbery and CSK honor–winning author of Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut (Millner/Bolden Books/Agate), illustrated by Gordon C. James.

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