In Volume 8 of The Collected Works of Langston Hughes, the genial Harlem everyman, Jesse B. Semple returns with his more cosmopolitan bar buddy, Ananias Boyd. Social climber Joyce Lane is now Mrs. Jesse B.
Semple, and Simple has minimized his flirtatious contacts with other women. Despite these ongoing characters, the later Simple stories are very different from the earlier Simple tales. The later stories evoke the historical and social context within which they were written, a politically dangerous time for the fictional adventures and fantasies of the main characters.
The Later Simple Stories returns to print Hughess third and fourth Simple collections, Simple Stakes a Claim and Simples Uncle Sam, along with some episodes Hughes did not include in any of his books. Simple Stakes a Claim was published in 1957, and it reflects the troubled and troublesome era of the Cold War and McCarthy hearings. Simples Uncle Sam appeared in 1965, and it captures the turbulent decade when black Americans asserted their rights, including the privilege to call themselves Black and wear their hair in natural styles.
The nonviolent strategies of civil disobedience and the violent strategies of urban rioting had converged to amplify African American voices as they demanded justice. The innocent humor of the earlier Simple stories is replaced here by new strengths. Remarkably powerful female characters emerge in this volume.
We observe Cousin Minnies self-preservation skills and her willingness to riot to defend her rights as a citizen. We read about Simples cousin Lynn Clarisse, who is a social activist educated at Fisk University. And we see Joyce herself emerge from her prim niche to display pride and knowledge about her African heritage.
The Later Simple Stories rounds out Hughess presentation of Jesse B. Semple and the various people of his world. Simple and his foil still make us chuckle, but more important, they make us think.
While these episodes often focus on particularities of the times, they also articulate broader truths that remain valuable.