By Langston Hughes.
Hill and Wang.180 pp. Paper $13.

“If Bush gets re-elected, I’m moving to Canada!” Most of us who’ve vowed this, at one time or another, won’t actually make good on our word. But the issues underlying this declaration are worth exploring. When you’re fed up with your country’s deplorable behavior, do you stay or do you go? To change society, do you take steps that involve real risk, or go slow?

Anyone wrestling with these complicated questions would do well to meet Mr. Jesse B. Semple, a creation of the incomparable Langston Hughes. Simple, as he’s better known, appeared from 1943 to 1965 as a character in Hughes’s columns for The Saturday Review, the Chicago Defender and the New York Post. There, the Harlem philosopher, raconteur, barfly and all-around charmer Simple held a running dialogue with the narrator Boyd (a stand-in for Hughes himself) on a wide range of subjects related to American life: racism and religion, love and death, bunions and the blues.

Simple’s Uncle Sam, a collection of forty-six conversational vignettes culled from Hughes’s later columns, narrows Simple’s focus. Explored here is the fraught relationship between one’s self and one’s country. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s provides the context for Simple’s Uncle Sam, but Hughes’s observations and insights belong as much to our time as to his own. In these thoughtful, wonderfully humorous stories, readers will find striking parallels to today’s political tensions and debates.

Take, for example, the story “Swinging High.” A young white civil rights activist has just been killed, crushed to death by a bulldozer, while protesting segregation. The story is hauntingly reminiscent of Rachel Corrie’s death last year in the occupied territories; resonant, too, is the ensuing discussion between Simple and Boyd on martyrdom, idealism and resistance. Simple, with characteristic irreverence, summarizes his view allegorically:

You remember that old joke about the washerwoman who bent over too far and got both her breasts caught in the wringer? There is such a thing as bending over too far–even to get your clothes clean. Certainly there is plenty of dirty linen in the U.S.A., but I do not advise nobody to get their breast caught in a wringer.

The question of how far one should go for the cause is central to Simple’s Uncle Sam. Simple’s Cousin Minnie, one of Hughes’s vivid peripheral characters, represents the militant end of the spectrum. In “Wigs for Freedom,” Minnie participates in a Harlem riot, scuffles with a police officer and, while being treated for the resulting head wound at the hospital, loses her prized platinum wig. Cousin Minnie bristles at the loss, but remains triumphant: “My name is Minnie and I lost my forty-dollar wig in the riots,” she imagines boasting to the acquiescent black political elite, the permanent object of her scorn. “But what is one wig more or less to give for freedom? One wig not to go slow.”

Simple, on the other hand, is no street-fighting man. His tactic is humor; his modus operandi, “to live in the city, get with the nitty-gritty, wise up and be witty.” Simple, like Cousin Minnie, doesn’t want to go slow and wait for social change, but if he must, he’d rather mock the oppressor than sock him. In “Rude Awakening,” perhaps the best story of the bunch, Simple’s cutting irony is on display: He re-imagines a world in which the wife of Governor Orval Faubus, who in 1957 deployed the National Guard keep blacks out of Arkansas schools, is his housemaid. “The reward for service is more service,” he croons sweetly to the governor’s wife. “You can serve us till you die, Mammy Faubus.”