I recently picked up The Best of Simple, a collection of short stories by Langston Hughes, and was struck by an amazing prayer that the main character says he would offer, were he “a praying man.”

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered another prayer that takes such a powerful stance on mutual responsibility for peace — and I thought it as appropriate today as when Hughes penned it in the 1950s:

“I would pray a don’t-want-to-have-no-more-wars prayer, and it would go like this: ‘Lord,’ I would say, I would ask Him, ‘Lord, kindly please take the blood off of my hands and off of my brothers’ hands, and make us shake hands clean and not be afraid. Neither let me nor them have no knives behind our backs, Lord, nor up our sleeves, nor no bombs piled out yonder in a desert. Let’s forget about bygones. Too many mens and womens are dead. The fault is mine and theirs, too. So teach us all to do right, Lord, please, and to get along together with that atom bomb on this earth–because I do not want it to fall on me–nor Thee — nor anybody living. Amen!”
–Jesse B. Semple, speaking to the narrator

Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were not among the authors I read growing up. Some contemporary black American authors were read in our household.

…I remember distinctly my dad flipping out when St. Lucy’s, my Catholic grammar school on Chicago’s West Side, complained that The Autobiography of Malcolm X was unsuitable reading.

To be fair, my grammar school (which merged with another in 1974, by the way, and entered the 20th Century sometime after that) also disapproved of Go Ask Alice (“diary” of druggie run-away), anything by Kurt Vonnegut or J.D. Salinger, and girls reading books about sports. I remember some questioning, but no outright criticism, over Antigone, which I’d picked out of my older sister’s books. I’m pretty sure I kept James Baldwin at home….

We did not own many books at home, and I am sure that our local public library was not promoting Hughes or Hurston. Then, somehow, through college years and beyond, there was always something else to read for school or for pleasure.

I am fortunate that the DC Public Library — and my local branch in particular — has a solid selection of African American classics….even if other classics, from Sophocles to Salinger, are hard to find. So, I’m making up for missed treasures now.

Langston Hughes. The Best of Simple. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1961. (reprinted 1989)

Posted by vspatz

Virginia blogs on Jewish topics at "A Song Every Day" and manages the Education Town Hall and #WeLuvBooks sites. More at Vspatz.wordpress.com

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