Alberta K. Johnson, or Madam Alberta K. Johnson, as she insists on being called by all persons other than her family and friends, is the main character in a number of comic poems written by Langston Hughes. The first piece to be published, “Madam and the Number Runner,” appeared in Contemporary Poetry (Autumn 1943). At least seventeen more pieces appeared in various publications, including Poetry, Common Ground, and Negro Story.
Hughes began composing the pieces in the summer of 1943, soon after the major riot in Harlem early in August 1943 and immediately after the composition of a long poem, itself sardonic, “The Ballad of Margie Polite,” about the woman whose altercation with a policeman in Harlem led directly to that riot.
The character of Madam may also be placed in the context of Hughes's Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, who had emerged the previous February in Hughes's weekly column in the Chicago Defender. Like Simple, Alberta K. Johnson is an instantly recognizable Harlem type despite her memorable individuality. A middle-aged woman of uncertain means, she is resourceful, self-confident, sassy, and streetwise. Thus she faces down the world, including her lovers past and present, her landlord, her insurance man come to collect his premiums, other bill collectors, or her self-righteous minister anxious to save her independent, fun-loving soul.