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Matthew Bird

English 100


“A Toast to Harlem”: Contrasting Aspects of Harlem

Through the book Best of Simple, important issues concerning the black community and

racial discrimination were brought to attention. In the chapter “A Toast to Harlem”, the main

character, Simple, points out specific aspects of Harlem and the South. The short story raises

questions concerning race relations and made people think about the ongoing situation. This

story among many others was written to change perceptions. The story “A Toast to Harlem” is a

chapter written to improve the image of Harlem and the black community in a credible and

convincing way to help fight against racism and discrimination.

The chapter begins with the bar tender telling a conversation he had with Simple. Simple

states he loves Harlem, and he tells of the good aspects of the place. He says that Harlem has a

high African American population, which makes him feel protected from white people. Next, he

states he doesn’t have to be afraid to vote. Unlike the South, the threat of being beaten for

supporting a particular candidate was far less in Harlem. The bar tender states that Harlem even

has a few black leaders, and Simple replies they have been elected by his own vote. In the

following sentence, it is mentioned that he does not have to deal with Jim Crow laws on the way

to work. As matter of fact, the subway trains even have some black drivers. Towards the middle

of the chapter, Simple says that the people are friendly in Harlem and gives a toast, “Here’s to

Harlem! They say Heaven is Paradise. If Harlem ain’t Heaven, Then a mouse ain’t mice!”

(Hughes, “A Toast to Harlem” 21). Here, Simple implies that the best place for African

Americans in America is Harlem, just as the best place in the universe is heaven.

Following the praises of Harlem are the negative aspects. As Simple proceeds his

conversation on Harlem, he proudly states that white people are afraid to come to Harlem at

night. The bar tender then replies by saying, “That is nothing to be proud of” (Hughes, “A Toast

to Harlem” 21). This statement infers that there is a high crime rate and that streets are dangerous

at night. Further on, the mention of riots also downgrades the image of Harlem. At the end of the

chapter, Simple goes on to describe the attitudes of the residents in a very negative way. He

describes the people as having fighting attitudes, which is completely contradictory to his

statement of the people being friendly. Finally, going beyond the chapter, the mention of bars

contributes to the critical view of Harlem.

The differing comments on Harlem in the chapter are one of many clever strategies used

in the book. One of the goals in this chapter was improving the image of Harlem which in turn

would give a more favorable view of black people. Therefore, the positive aspects of Harlem

were stated. The question comes to why the negatives of Harlem would be included in a story

that is supposed to make people more sympathetic to the black community. One reason was to be

more convincing. If Harlem had only been depicted as a great place and the downsides were

completely ignored, the book and the short stories in it would have been less credible. People

knew of the problems Harlem faced, and the readers would have taken the book as trying to be

deceptive. They would have been less responsive to the book and it would have been less

effective. By acknowledging the negatives, people came to accept the positives of Harlem.

Another reason for the statement of the negative aspects was outside the reason for

credibility. The other goal was to raise sympathy for African Americans by the criticisms of

Harlem. In the places where the negatives are stated, the treatment of the white people toward the

black people is also mentioned. For instance, where Simple talks about the belligerent attitude of

Harlem residents, Simple also states, “I would not mind a war if I could win it. White folks fight,

lynch, and enjoy themselves” (Hughes, “A Toast to Harlem” 22). Here, Hughes acknowledges a

negative aspect but shows how the fault follows back to the racists attitudes of the white people.

An example is where Simple states how white people are afraid to come to Harlem at night. This

is another place where Hughes admits a flaw, but he turns it around against the white people.

Hughes does this by having Simple say, “I am sorry white folks is scared to come to Harlem, but

I am scared to go around some of them” (Hughes, “A Toast to Harlem” 21). The point here is

though Harlem may be dangerous, the crime there is nothing compared to the treatment black

people are experiencing. If anything, Hughes is saying that black people have a legitimate reason

to be afraid. Through showing how the faults of Harlem connect to bad treatment by racism,

Hughes cleverly “excuses” his criticisms of Harlem.

Another way to build up the reputation of Harlem is the use of a simple strategy of

tearing down the opponent to bring people to side with your cause. This is common in many of

the book’s short stories. In Simple’s comment about good transportation, he also mentions the

South indirectly. “I also like it because we got subways and it does not take all day to get

downtown, neither are you Jim Crowed on the way” (Hughes, “A Toast to Harlem” 21).

Throughout the book, the South is highly criticized to bring people on the side with the African

Americans and their struggle against racism. In the chapter and beyond, the praises of Harlem

are compared to the problems in the South to show how bad discrimination was in that area.

The North in general gets a free pass on the issue of racial discrimination despite the fact

they were guilty of it. They did not have as many as Jim Crow laws, nor were they as brutal, but

racism there was still rampant. However, in the Best of Simple, the North does not get off so

easy. Though the South is mentioned a lot more, the wrongdoings of the North are also brought

to light. In an instance where Simple says, “At least I am welcome in these bars-run by white

folk though they are,’ said Simple, ‘but I do not know no place in the country where I am

welcome,” (Hughes, “Wooing the Muse” 31), Simple is basically saying that the problem of

racism is nationwide, and not only confined to the South. A few sentences down, Simple then

says, “…you know these summer resort places up North don’t admit colored” (Hughes, “Wooing

the Muse” 31). Here, the reader is being informed that the North also discriminates and is hostile

to blacks. Further in the book, the condemnation of the North gets even worse. As matter of fact,

at one point, the North is put as worse than the South. “I said, ‘Aren’t you going back up North?’

The man said, ‘I’ve been up North. They comes and they goes. You go’ ” (Hughes, “They Come

and They Go” 136). Here, the man gives away the ticket because going up North doesn’t make

the racial situation for him any better. The passage here tells the reader the North was just as bad

as the South.

Though this book was written decades ago, connections between the book and modern

America can still be made today. No signs are left on the streets, and discrimination is outlawed.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has left the hearts of the people. Neither does it

mean the racist stereotypes of blacks no longer exist. One of the reasons for the story “A Toast to

Harlem” was because of stereotypes. Many white people had bad images of black people. The

praises of Harlem and the black community described in the chapter and throughout the book

were written to help change those views. Similarly, many people today still have racist

stereotypes about African Americans and other minority groups. Many people think of blacks as

criminals, and blame them for the many problems we have in society. Few of them, however,

realize that societal problems have occurred because of racism.

Racist policies in the past still have a large effect today. As the negatives in the chapter

point back to unfair treatment, the problems poor black neighborhoods face today can be pointed

back to the Great Migration and the suburbanization of America in the 50’s and 60’s. When

blacks began moving into the cities, the white people tried to “contain” them. The industrial jobs

were moved out into the suburbs, highways and interstates set physical boundaries, and the

middle class and rich people moved out. The African Americans were left in urban centers with

few jobs. Neither were they allowed to buy houses out in the suburbs and have access to work.

The white people in this way kept the blacks in the cities and in a cycle of poverty. As a result,

many of the inner-city black neighborhoods today are still poverty-stricken and crime-ridden.

The book Best of Simple can still be applied to society today. Though racism and

discrimination is not at the level it was in the 1950’s and 1960’s, it does not change the fact that

it is an important issue. Many people every year fall victim to this evil, and more must be done to

make this happen less. Bringing this issue to the attention of the people and having less tolerance

to racism will help bring more equality among all the ethnic and minority groups of America. All

people must come to accept ethnic diversity, and learn to live in harmony with one another.

Works Cited

Hughes, Langston. “A Toast to Harlem.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang,

1990. 20-23.

Hughes, Langston. “Wooing the Muse.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang,

1990. 28-34.

Hughes, Langston. “They Come and They Go.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and

Wang, 1990. 134-137.