Jess B. Goes to the Motherland

The proverbial “man-in-the-street” leaves Harlem and goes to Nairobi.

Pete M. Mhunzi

James Langston Hughes, (1902-1967) an Engineering graduate of Lincoln University, began his literary career in the summer of 1926 when he collaborated with other writers and intellectuals to found the short-lived magazine “FIRE”; so named because of the ambition to “burn” all the old established ideas about African Americans.  Hughes, the author of more than thirty books travelled widely; working as a seaman on voyages to Africa and Europe.  At various times he lived in Mexico, Paris, Italy, Spain and the USSR.      He wrote a newspaper column for the Chicago Defender in which he created     Jess B. Simple, a Harlem character who was featured in several short-story collections as well as in his stage musical, Simply Heavenly.  Called the “original Jazz poet” by Arna Bontempts, Hughes wrote a verse which reflects the tempo and mood of Jazz.  He also distinguished himself as a writer of short stories, plays, novels, movie scripts and lyrics.

Hilary Boniface Ng’weno, without overstatement, is regarded as Kenya’s most respected and analytically perceptive journalist.  Harvard educated, he was a man who studied science and became a writer.  Appointed the first Kenyan Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Nation (a Kenyan newspaper) he resigned over a question of principle in 1965.  As founding editor of Joe Magazine (political satire no longer in print), he gave the reading public a satirical view of news and views that few people in East Africa thought possible.

In May 1975, Ng’weno founded the Weekly Review, a journal of political news, commentary and analysis.  His attempts at fiction include The Men From Pretoria, 1975.  Of it, Peter Nazareth wrote, ‘if Hilary Ng’weno is willing to take the writing of fiction seriously . . . he may emerge as one of the important East African novelists.’

This essay attempts to identify the influence of Langston Hughes on Hilary Ng’weno by comparing and contrasting the character Jess B. Simple to the character Joe Kihara.  The thesis of this article is that the creation of the character “Joe” was influenced by Mr Ng’weno’s knowledge and appreciation of Jess B. Simple. 

The character ‘Jess B. Simple” was based on the real person of Melvin Stewert, of New York City.*  Each of the Simple stories allows the reader to eavesdrop on a conversation between Jess B. and an unnamed companion about a current social issue.  The setting is usually a bar.  The name “Jess B. Simple” is a parody of America’s expectations for the social role of African people in the U.S.A.:  Just be simple and leave the thinking to us.  This is the message that was conveyed through the literature of social direction and class hierarchy.

However Mr. Simple is everything but simple!  His knowledge of current events and their historical progression is developed.  His analysis is thoughtful and mature.  His self-concept is positive.  He is urban and well versed in American Classical Music and African American folklore.

“Be-Bop music was certainly coloured folks music, which is why white folks found it so hard to imitate.  But there are some few white boys that latched on to it quite well.  And no wonder, because they sat and listened to Dizzy, Thelonius, Tad Dameron, Charlie Parker, also Mary Lou Williams.  All night long every time they got a chance, and bought their records by the dozens to copy their riffs. (1)

The language had to invoke a positive identification with the character by the reader.  A very delicate balance was achieved by both authors in that neither character is a representative of the middle-class.  With both Hughes and Ng’weno, the vocabulary and grasp of social issues belie the working-class stereotype and its assumed level of education.

Both Jess B. and Joe are what we call ‘regular brothers.”  They advocate social cohesiveness in the face of adverse social conditions.  Joe is the new “everyman” of the newly independent Republic of Kenya.  Joe is the “African”/mwananchi (child of the soil/everyman) in the multi-racial society of Kenya.  Joe could be a waiter, with only a few years of formal education, and still have his command of spoken and written English.


Both readerships have a similar set of sensitivities to and patterns of the usage of the English language. These sensitivities reject ungrammatical and underdeveloped English and at the same time promote the usage and development of colloquialisms and slang, within a sound grammatical framework that draws on a constantly-expanding vocabulary.

There are colloquialisms and slang that are representative of English as it is spoken by Africans in Kenya.  Joe speaks Kenyan English with an urban point of view.

In Harlem, the African American dialect made the quantum leap from oral literature to written literature during the Harlem Renaissance.  Jess B. was a principal voice in this classic period.  His command of English bridged the gap between the formally educated and the informally educated reader in the African American communities.

The African American laboured under the same judgemental eye that attempted to govern the usage of English in Kenya.  The same judgements were made about slang and colloquialisms being representative of ignorance and crudity.

Joe is a more earthy character than Jess. B.  Unshaven and dressed to resemble an askari (watchman), he is a rung below the middle class of Nairobi, twelve years after Uhuru. (Freedom/Independence)

Whereas Jess B. wears suits and I would imagine, Stacy Adams pointy-toed shoes, Joe wears rough, ill-fitting clothes that are not representative of the styles of fashion found in Nairobi.  Joe resembles a recent migrant from the rural areas.

The askari image is characterized by the heavy overcoat and boots.  Joe did not shop for the English wools that can be found on River Road.*** Or the Kaunda** suits that compete with western tailoring for those who prefer a smartly cut and well-fitted African suit of British cloth.  Nairobi can get cold at night!

Joe is fresh from the shamba (farm) which is where the majority of Kenyans live. The wananchi are small farmers in Kenya.  In the U.S.A., everyman is a worker, an urban dweller.

Simple’s readership was largely urban.  Joe’s readership was a fascinating blend of the rural farmer and the newly developing urban working and middle classes of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru and other smaller towns,

Joe, the quintessential mwananchi, had other more pressing matters than fashion on his mind.  He had no social grace or pretensions.  You would not find him at the bar in the Hilton or the 680.**** But you would find Simple at Birdland, or the Dunbar Hotel.  Jess B. represents the Harlem Renaissance, a period of cultural assertion by the African American that was firmly grounded in the music and folklore of urban America and looked to Harlem for its role models and standards of excellence.

There is no indigenous culture to be found in the Hilton or the 680 which is representative of a united Kenyan people.  There is hardly a distinct urban culture in Kenya,  Nairobi offers comfort and opulence, not culture and art that are identifiably Kenyan in the holistic sense.

Joe, therefore, is a forward-looking character, representative of the urban migrant who looks to the future generations to create and mould the national culture and art forms of the national community.

A national culture and art will augment the current and historical pattern of cultural exchange active since Uhuru.  This pattern traces the stratification of the individual ethnic communities, offering their respective cultures and arts to the national community in the markets, shops and galleries of Kenya.

The name “Joe” lacks the double meaning of “Jess B.”  It is well-grounded in Euro-American literature and folklore as “everyman;” mwananchi in Kiswahili.    No parody was intended by the author, Ng’weno.  However, I do feel that the choice of an American, as opposed to a British colloquialism, was deliberate.

This assertion is based on the fact that Mr Ng’weno received his higher education in the U.S.A., not Great Britain.  There are two schools of professionals in the English speaking professional world: the American school and the British school.  In Kenya, an ongoing competition exists between the members of these two schools.  Mr Ng’weno being a graduate of Harvard, is one of the most distinguished scholars to return to Kenya from the U.S.A.

Joe, like his counterpart, Jess B., is an active participant in the life of the big city.  He expresses his opinions to an unnamed friend who closely resembles Jess B’s anonymous partner.  Joe speaks English with a developed vocabulary that belies his appearance.  Consider his confidence in working his way through bureaucracy:

“It’s my way of getting to see the top man.  Hospitals don’t like scenes because its bad for their image of serenity and calm in the face of catastrophe.” (2)

Of real value to our analysis is to stress the importance of the good, colloquial developed English of both Jess B. and Joe in attracting the intended readership of both authors.  One important commonality of both Kenya and Afro-America was the ratio of formally educated to informally educated readers. The time periods being considered are the respective periods that the two characters function in: Post WWII in the U.S.A. and independent Kenya, beginning in 1963.

The common source of a colonial education with limited goals for the production of educated African people was responsible for the small numbers of formally educated African people in both the U.S. and the British Crown Colony of Kenya.  Twelve years of Uhuru greatly expanded the readership of English language materials in Kenya while WWII was responsible for expanding the readership of African Americans during Jess B’s days.

A large number of both readerships were informally educated and very proud of their command of the English language.  The large numbers of Africans who found work as waiters and servants both in Kenya and the U.S. acquired a polished command of Standard English that flowered into metaphor, colloquialism, praise and vivid description when spoken to a friend or fellow.

Both authors had to write challenging, thought-provoking dialogue that was unpretentious and representative of the workers and middle classes of Harlem and Nairobi. Both Jess B. and Joe represented the legitimization of the respective English dialects of Afro-America and Kenya.

Joe represents the emerging “African” who is keenly aware of the challenge of national identity, and the contradictions this form of identity poses to ethnic identity in the narrow definition.  Both Joe and Jess B. have a rebellious nature that is expressed in the questions they ask, the analysis they offer, and the self-awareness they reveal.  Joe parodies the game of golf:

“You can scoff!  But I was taught golf by one of the native masters of the game.  I learned about it all from the “mashie” to the “niblick” from Cook Corporal Ginger Mac Andrew behind the officer’s mess in Burma; and his father was caddie to St. Andrew, who founded the original golf club in Scotland.” (3)

The subject of self-awareness exposes a vital difference in the two characters.    While Jess. B. reacts to racism, Joe is oblivious to race as a social reality.  Joe reacts to tribalism/ethnic nationalism and neo-colonialism.  Joe does not have to think about what it means to be black.  Jess B. is the antithesis of his misnomer.  Jess B. does not apologize for being black.

“To be shot down is bad for the body, but to be Jim Crowed is worse for the spirit.  Besides, speaking of war, in the next war I want to see Negroes pinning medals on white men.” (4)

Jess B. is a stand-up man, the type that can point directly to Africa as the home of the African American.

Jess B. is alive and well in the Big Apple and Joe is secure in Nairobi and does not dream about maisha (life) in London.  Both characters represent the further expansion of British society and the social and political transformation that expansion has imposed on the African.  And within that transformation, the particular adaptation African people are making to the English language in an urban setting.

A clear statement is being made by both authors: That a unique culture was developing in Harlem that peaked during the Renaissance, and later another unique culture started developing in Nairobi.  Two cultures are determined by African people and their adaptation to the English language and British social values.

The particular occupation of each character is not stated in the stories.*****   Both reflect a working-class profile.  Sometimes Jess. B was unemployed.  Joe sometimes appeared on the cover in a mock characterization of a particular occupation.  This is consistent with the format; what might be called a comic book.  Jess B. was not extensively illustrated in the books that I have seen.

Joe is a forward-looking character.  Any historical reflections he would have, would pre-date Kenya as a republic and therefore any possibility of a national culture.  Joe shows his sophistication through his knowledge of the dominant ethnic groups in Nairobi.  He probably speaks Gigikoyo, Kiswahili, Kikamba and Kijaluo; and of course English.  It has occurred to him on at least one occasion that, irio is sweet with samaki too! ******


Both Joe and Jess B. feel impacted by foreigners.  Joe by tourists in the main, and Jess B. by immigrants.  Both characters express dissatisfaction with their economic progress and social status.  However, both are survivors who start each day anew and rise to the occasion.  Both characters are a combination of long-range optimism and short-range pessimism.




“The Best of Simple” LANGSTON HUGHES  HILL & WANG, NEW YORK 1986      Fifteen stories that originally appeared in: “Simple Stakes a Claim” 1953        Other books about Jess B. Simple are: “Simple Speaks His Mind” “Simples’s Uncle Sam” and “Simple Takes a Wife.”


“Langston Hughes: Poet of His People” ELISABETH P. MYERS  DELL N.Y. 1970

“Black Poets of the United States” JEAN WAGNER  UNIV. OF ILL. URBANA 1973

“Black Voices” ABRAHAM CHAPMAN, Editor  A MENTOR BOOK  N.Y. 1968

JOE, AFRICA’S HUMOUR MONTHLY  HILARY NG’WENO Editor                     JOE PUBLICATIONS LTD. NBI  June 1973 to November 1977


“The Kenyatta Succession” JOSEPH KARIMI & PHILIP OCHIENG             TRANS AFRICA  NBI 1980

A NEW READER’S GUIDE TO AFRICAN LITERATURE                              Edited by HANS M. ZELL, CAROL BUNDY & VIRGINIA COULON                   AFRICANA PUB. CO, 1983



  • The Best of Simple “BOP”

*The Best of Simple is dedicated to Melvin Stewert, Broadway’s genial Simple.

**The first is the nationalist model.  The Kaunda suit and the Nyerere suit were the basic cuts.  The Zairians in Nairobi had the reputation of being the most creative in designing original variations of the Kaunda suit, which was more popular.  The Nyerere suit branded the wearer as a socialist; not a welcome tag in Kenya.  It had a round neck with no collar.    The second is the European model with all its variations.                              (Time period: 1960s and 70s)

*** “River Road is where the wananchi shop.

**** Two of the top hotels in Nairobi, and two top nightspots in Harlem.      “Birdland” was named after Charles “Yardbird” Parker, an alto saxophonist who has been one of the most influential musicians in American history.

***** Stewert’s occupation was a crank maker in a war plant.

****** Irio is a vegetable dish of the Agikuyu.  The Dholuo who live around Lake Nyanza eat samaki  (fish)

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