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(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Gospel Singers” is not really a short story in the usual sense, nor a chapter in a novel, although Langston Hughes’s books featuring the character called Simple are listed in bibliographies as novels. The story is found in Simple’s Uncle Sam (1965), the last of several books devoted to a presumably average, relatively uneducated black man who speaks with a certain folk wisdom about Harlem and its denizens. His relationship to the black community seems somewhat analogous to that of Will Rogers to Midwestern rural and small-town white people of limited means. Simple’s social commentary is more confined, perhaps, to strictly local conditions, those that beset urban blacks, late immigrants from the South.

Sketches about Jesse B. Semple, barroom philosopher, first appeared in 1943 in the Chicago Defender, perhaps the most widely read weekly newspaper among urban blacks. Semple, or Simple, as he was dubbed, became a kind of folk hero, speaking directly to the relatively unlettered people he commemorated in language that they could understand. Each short piece is a dialogue between Simple and the narrator, a college-educated friend named Boyd, whose somewhat stilted language contrasts effectively with Simple’s colloquial dialect and direct approach. “Gospel Singers” is a typical piece of approximately five pages that might appear in the newspaper as a half-comic, half-serious commentary on contemporary life.

Though it has no plot in the sense of a causally connected set of actions, it has a plan that broaches a topic of conversation in the opening lines, explores the topic in the course of its five pages, and signs off with a minor rhetorical flourish. In this case, the opener is an observation about how many theaters are closing down in Harlem, to be reopened as churches with the names of ministers up in lights like those of film stars. There used to be storefront churches in Harlem; now there are theater-front churches. As Simple points out, “the box office has turned into a collection plate, and the choir is swinging gospel songs.”

What follows is a discussion of the relative merits of gospel singing as well-paid...

(The entire section is 538 words.)