Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Gospel Singers” plays ironically with a number of commonly held assumptions about the proper role of religion. One of the distinctive capacities of Simple, which is presumably a strong tendency in urban black experience, is the ability to live comfortably amid contradictions and ambiguities. Hughes is not the only writer who deals with this ambivalence—witness Ralph Ellison’s strange character, Rinehart, in the novel Invisible Man (1952), who is both a preacher and a procurer.

In one sense, the story is a defense of promoting happiness through religion, and a sly blow at the overly solemn view that religious worship should be steeped in the consciousness of sin and suffering. Black experience is no doubt adequately familiar with this world as a veil of tears without harping on that aspect of existence unnecessarily. Gospel singing, like jazz, that other quintessentially black contribution to American music, is a way to transcend the gloomier realities of ordinary life.

Simple also indirectly attacks the attitude, often given lip service by the pious, that religious people should despise money and prefer poverty as somehow good for the soul. The truly poverty-stricken are seldom aware of any great improvement in their souls attributable to their financial situation. They are more likely to suspect that goodness is a luxury for people who have enough to eat and shelter from the fierce extremes of Harlem weather.

The observations about opera are a comfortable reflection of unsophisticated tastes, directed to an audience of non-opera goers. However, they are offered in such a way as to admit the possible virtues of that medium and suggest that black singers are also gaining recognition there. Even Simple, as unschooled as he is in highbrow music, knows a good voice when he hears one and applauds Marion Anderson.