Matthew Bird English 100 7-21-09 “A Toast to Harlem”: Contrasting Aspects of Harlem The book Best of Simple by Langston Hughes addresses the important issues concerning the black community, bringing to attention nationwide racism, discrimination, and stereotypes. Through using the main character Simple, he talks about Harlem, a community known for its high African American. He also brings to attention the North and South, and the nation being racist. In the chapter “A Toast to Harlem”, Simple points out the good and bad things of Harlem, and highly criticizes the South. The short story raises questions concerning race relations and made people think about the ongoing situation. This story among many others in the book was written to change perceptions. “A Toast to Harlem” is a chapter written to change the reputation of Harlem and improve the image of the black community. Through this, he criticizes Jim Crow laws and discrimination, and points social problems back to racism. Hughes uses key strategies to state his claims in a credible and convincing way, making his book a powerful tool to help fight against racism and discrimination. The chapter begins with the narrator 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 racist attitudes of 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 a 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 faced with the same problems mentioned in the Best of Simple.

Works Cited Hughes, Langston. “A Toast to Harlem.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. 20-23. Hughes, Langston. “They Come and They Go.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. 134-137.


Hughes, Langston. “Wooing the Muse.” The Best of Simple. 1961. New York: Hill and Wang, 1990. 28-34.