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James T. KeaneFebruary 06, 2024
Portrait of Langston Hughes by Carl Van Vechten, 1936. (Library of Congress)

Published in 1932 in a German magazine, Langston Hughes’s poem “Goodbye Christ” began with the following verses:

Listen, Christ,
You did alright in your day, I reckon—
But that day’s gone now.

A few lines later, Hughes had this to say:

Goodbye,
Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova,
Beat it on away from here now.
Make way for a new guy with no religion at all—
A real guy named
Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME—
I said, ME!

Depending on what one’s take is on Langston Hughes and the famous Black poet, journalist and author’s relationship to Christianity, those words can scandalize or confirm. They certainly don’t sound like the sentiments of a Christian believer. However, Hughes (who was born 123 years ago last week) had a nuanced—well, complicated—relationship with organized religion, one reflected in his work and life story. “Goodbye Christ,” in other words, was not the final word on Hughes’s religious life.

Which Langston Hughes should we believe? The one who tells Christ to beat it because Marx is the new savior? Or the one who identifies with a shepherd at the birth of Jesus?

Born in Joplin, Mo., in 1901, Hughes was raised by a grandmother after his parents divorced when he was young. He grew up in Lincoln, Ill., and Cleveland, Ohio. After high school, he spent a year in Mexico (where his father had moved) before attending Columbia University for a year. His first book of poems, The Weary Blues, was published in 1926. It included perhaps his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which Hughes wrote when he was 17.

Hughes graduated from Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania, in 1929. His first novel, ​​Not Without Laughter, was published a year later. He would go on to publish numerous novels, plays, non-fiction works and a 1961 autobiography, The Big Sea. From 1942 to 1962, he wrote a weekly column in The Chicago Defender, a Black newspaper. Hughes’s 1951 book Montage of a Dream Deferred included his poem, “Harlem,” whose verses (“What happens to a dream deferred?/ Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”) gave Lorraine Hansberry the title and the inspiration for her play, “A Raisin in the Sun.”

While he was often at odds with other members of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black artistic community, he exercised enormous influence on the works of other Black writers. Though Hughes did not garner much attention from America’s writers during his life, he was referenced regularly in the columns of Theophilus Lewis, a Black Catholic convert who was a longtime theater reviewer for America (and a fellow Harlem Renaissance writer).

Wallace D. Best argued that Langston Hughes was intimately involved in the religious life of the Black community in both Chicago and New York.

Hughes died of cancer in New York in 1967. His contributions to Black American culture have been recognized even more broadly since his death. In 2016, President Barack Obama quoted Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Throughout his artistic career, Hughes was accused of being a communist, a charge he always denied (poems like “Goodbye Christ” didn’t help his cause). In fact, his ties to various Christian churches were much stronger than any political association. Wallace D. Best noted in Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem that while Hughes’s “church attendance observed no structural, theological, or philosophical bounds,” he was a regular congregant at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. Best also noted that during his visits to his father in Mexico, “Hughes developed a fondness for Catholic ritual.” When his father died, he returned to Mexico and attended daily Mass. Hughes also later attended the largest Black Catholic church in Chicago.

In 2020, the historian Shannen Dee Williams wrote of Hughes’s 1949 visit to Wilson, N.C., where he celebrated Negro History Week with women religious of the Oblate Sisters of Providence and their students at an all-Black Catholic school.

In 1961, Hughes’s “Black Nativity,” a theatrical retelling of the birth of Jesus with an entirely Black cast and featuring a broad array of spirituals, premiered Off-Broadway and had a successful tour throughout Europe a year later. A film based on the play starring Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett and a number of other Black musicians and actors was released in 2013. (America’s Michael Tueth, S.J., reviewed the movie later that year.) Hughes also published three “Christmas poems” throughout his career, one of which included the following verses:

I’m just a shepherd boy,/ Very poor I am—/ But I know there is/ A King in Bethlehem./ What shall I bring/ As a present just for Him?/ What shall I bring to the Manger?/ I will bring my heart/ And give my heart to Him./ I will bring my heart/ To the Manger.

Which version of Langston Hughes should we believe? The one who tells Christ to beat it because Marx is the new savior? Or the one who identifies with a shepherd at the birth of Jesus? While noting that other biographers of Hughes called him “secular to the bone,” Wallace D. Best argued that Hughes was intimately involved in the religious life of the Black community in both Chicago and New York. His work “has always been infused with religion,” Best wrote. In a 2013 article, Best quoted Hughes himself on “Goodbye Christ,” which continued to stir up controversy decades after its publication.

The poem, Hughes wrote, was “no reflection on Christ.” Rather, it was aimed “against racketeering, profiteering, racial segregation and showmanship in religion, which, at the time, I felt was undermining the foundations of the great and decent ideals for which Christ stood.”

In 2016, President Barack Obama quoted Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” at the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “The Dumpster Fillers,” by Josh Dugat. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Who's in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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