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University of Alabama School of Law




This essay assesses black literature as a medium for working out popular understandings of America’s Constitution and laws. Starting in the 1940s, Langston Hughes’s fictional character, Jesse B. Semple, began appearing in the prominent black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. The figure affectionately known as “Simple” was undereducated, unsophisticated, and plain spoken - certainly to a fault according to prevailing standards of civility, race relations, and professional attainment. Butthese very traits, along with a gritty experience under Jim Crow, made him not only a sympathetic figure but also an armchair legal theorist. In a series of barroom conversations, Simple ably critiqued the ongoing project of liberal legal experimentation. In fact, Simple had something to say on many matters of constitutional law: the injustice and absurdity of racial violence and segregation, the agonizing pace of integration, the limitations of the nation’s civil rights laws, and the dwindling effectiveness of street protests. Fiction became a two-way legal medium, teaching citizens about the U.S. Constitution, while giving them a way to puncture the lofty, hegemonic, and cramped official visions of law. Through arguments, stories, and dream sequences, the author proposed a conception of equality rooted in authenticity, charity, and opportunity, to counteract the vision of selective, formal equality emerging from the Court. As an alternative, he recommended a transitional form of poetic justice to effectuate the ethical and material transformation necessary to guarantee equal protection of the law.

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