A Poet Turns to Fiction

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Langston Hughes was already an accomplished poet when he began writing short stories. Though he had previously published several stories in a Harlem magazine, it was not until 1933 (while sitting in a hotel room in Moscow, after having read D. H. Lawrence’s The Lovely Lady) that he decided the short story was another genre he could master. Hughes became proficient in such a short time that his first collection of stories, The Ways of White Folks, was published in 1934. Despite this initial success, there was a delay of sixteen years before another collection appeared, though after the drought came seven extensive volumes of short stories published between 1950 and 1965. Five of these feature Hughes’s most famous fictional character, Harlem “folk” philosopher Jesse B. Semple, who holds forth on subjects ranging from his landladies to former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Hughes’s short stories in general can be divided into two categories: early ones that follow Hughes’s adapted version of a traditional Aristotelian short-story form, and later ones, most of which utilize a more flexible and generally more entertaining dialogue form. Both categories feature Hughes’s incisive commentary on race relations and demonstrate his career-long search for a form flexible enough to accommodate both his high aesthetic principles and his political interests.

The title of Hughes’s first book of short stories, The Ways of White Folks (1934), is a homage to W. E. B. Du Bois’s classic of African American sociology, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois’s work makes the bold claim that the history of the twentieth century will be the history of the color line; Hughes’s work investigates the psychological and sometimes physical consequences of an individual character’s relationship to the color line. Two stories, “Little Dog” and “Father and Son,” show, respectively, the...

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Cultivating a Lighter Touch

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Laughing to Keep from Crying, which appeared in 1952, offers a more lighthearted approach to racial issues. The stories tend to be more flexible in form and more simplified in subject matter. Conflict is often reduced to its simplest form, and the function of the characters involved is often that of comical and ironic opposition. Stories of exceptional merit include “Who’s Passing for Who?,” a story of disguised racial identity; “Something in Common,” the title story of a later collection of selected stories; “Little Old Spy,” an ironic story of prerevolutionary Cuba; and the concluding story of the collection, the powerful and moving “Big Meeting.”

In “Who’s Passing for Who?,” Hughes tells the story of a group of Harlem artists who let guilt-trip white liberal tourists foot all of their nightly bar tabs. It is only when a group of Iowans pass through town that they get their comeuppance. The artists begin to impress upon the Iowans, in a good-natured manner, the magnitude of the cross-racial disguise problem. According to the artists, thousands of African Americans throughout the country are passing for white. In an ironic ending typical of Hughes’s stories from the 1950’s, the Iowans reveal that they indeed belong to the group of African Americans who are passing for white, though only for the reason that they make more money as white people. The confession leads to all parties dropping their pretensions and enjoying the evening on an equal footing. As the story ends, however, the Iowans leave with one last parting shot—they reveal that they are in fact whites who are passing for “colored,” just for the sake of having fun. The narrator is left musing about the racial identity of the midwesterners and can only conclude that the evening’s entertainment has been at his expense.

“Something in Common” is one of a group of Hughes’s stories set in exotic locations, in this case Hong Kong. This “defamiliarization” of the reader allows Hughes to represent the conflict in its simplest terms. The dialogue between a stuffy and...

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Jesse B. Semple

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The last and most famous of Hughes’s fictional creations is Harlem “folk” philosopher Jesse B. Semple. The “Simple” stories began as a column for the African American newspaper The Chicago Defender and soon acquired national attention. Semple, like Ishmael Reed’s character Jes Grew, is a signifying creation, though Jesse B. Semple’s folkloric home is a modern, urban one. Semple provides colorful commentary on every topic from politics to landladies, usually from his second home, the Wishing Well bar. His constant interlocutor is the college-educated narrator, who serves as the perfect straight man in the dialogues. Semple’s “signifying” (or verbal gamesmanship, to use the term popularized by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) always concerns the issues of sex, race, and class, all complicated by Semple’s southern upbringing. On the issue of sex, Semple’s life is governed by his ex-wife in Baltimore and his two present-day loves. Zarita, his former girlfriend and still sometime companion, also spends a great deal of time at the Wishing Well bar and fits in the Semple category of “nighttime” women. Joyce, Semple’s wife, is a thoroughly respectable and hard-working woman who conveniently fits in the category of “daytime” women. Not coincidentally, Joyce supports Semple during many of the early stories. In fact, when Hughes decided to stop writing the column, instead of killing Semple off (as many writers have done when retiring their most famous characters), he moved him to a house in the suburbs bought by Joyce.

Semple is most eloquent on the subject of race relations, especially when he recalls his early life in...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Blake, Susan L. “Old John in Harlem: The Urban Folktales of Langston Hughes.” Black American Literature Forum 14 (Fall, 1980): 100-104. Examines Hughes’s Simple stories and how they function as folktales in a black urban society. Shows how the stories, functioning as folktales, tend to unite the black population through recognizable past and present experiences.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Langston Hughes. New York: Blooms Literary Criticism, 2008. Collection of essays by leading Hughes scholars discussing all aspects of his life and work.

Emanuel, James A. “Bodies in the Moonlight: A Critical Analysis.” Readers and Writers 1 (November-January, 1968): 38-39, 42. A critical examination of one of the first of Hughes’s published short stories. This brief analysis emphasizes an “innocence” theme that is set in a seafaring environment. Does not include notes.

Jemie, Onwuchekwa. Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Explores the African American, political, and musical experiences of Hughes’s life and shows how these areas affected his works. Jemie’s conclusion is that these experiences proved to Hughes that there was a “black existence,” or a distinctly separate black culture, in America. It was this “black existence” that developed...

(The entire section is 402 words.)