Langston Hughes (1902)
It was on this date, February 1, 1902, that American poet James Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, the son of a schoolteacher mother and a storekeeper father. As Hughes himself noted, “I grew up in a not very religious family, but I had a foster aunt who saw that I went to church and Sunday school.” Indeed, the influences evident in his work include the Bible as much as W.E.B. Du Bois, Walt Whitman and others.
As a leading light of the “Harlem Renaissance” in the 1920s, and the author of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (which appeared in the ethnic journal Crisis in 1921), Hughes depicted the ordinary lives of black people with a realism that crossed racial and cultural boundaries. Since his “discovery” by the poet Vachel Lindsay in Washington, DC, Hughes published more than 35 books. He also visited the Soviet Union and adopted many of the goals of the Communists, although he denied to Congress ever having been one himself.
Hughes believed in God, but did not accept Christianity; indeed, he raged at “the doors of many of our churches, [which] have been until recently entirely closed to Negroes.” “What I am against is the misuse of religion,” said Hughes. His poem “Goodbye, Christ” (1932), written during that journey to Russia, was attacked by evangelist Aimee Semple MacPherson and the right-wing America First party. Here is the poem:
You did alright in your day, I reckon-
But that day’s gone now.
They ghosted you up a swell story, too,
Called it Bible-
But it’s dead now,
The popes and the preachers’ve
Made too much money from it.
They’ve sold you to too many
Kings, generals, robbers, and killers-
Even to the Tzar and the Cossacks,
Even to Rockefeller’s Church,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain’t no good no more.
They’ve pawned you
Till you’ve done wore out.
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!
Go ahead on now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go,
And Saint Pope Pius,
And Saint Aimee McPherson,
And big black Saint Becton
Of the Consecrated Dime.
And step on the gas, Christ!
Don’t be so slow about movin?
The world is mine from now on-
And nobody’s gonna sell ME
To a king, or a general,
Or a millionaire.
Hughes later repudiated that poem. In another, “Drama for Winter Night (Fifth Avenue),” Hughes caustically portrays a church official saying,
You can’t sleep here
My good man,
You can’t sleep here.
This is the house of God.
The usher opens the church door and goes out.
And, in a short story called “Salvation,” Hughes recalls how he was “saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved”:
That night, for the first time in my life but one — for I was a big boy twelve years old — I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.
Hughes criticized those who used their piety for personal gain, or as a shield behind which oppression could flourish. He died in New York, on 22 May 1967, of complications after surgery. According to his biographer, Arnold Rampersad, Langston Hughes “sought to counter, as best he could, his almost ineradicable reputation as an atheist. However, he made no effort to appear pious in public, and attached himself to no church.”*
* Arnold Rampersad, The Life of Langston Hughes, 1988, vol. II, p. 306 (Quoted in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief, 1996).
Originally published February 2004 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.