Concerning “Goodbye Christ”: Langston Hughes, Political Poetry, and African American Religion
By Wallace Best | November 26, 2013
“Politics can be the graveyard of the poet. And only poetry can be his resurrection.”
Langston Hughes (1964)
On the afternoon of November 15, 1940, Langston Hughes was headed toward the exquisite Vista del Arroyo Hotel in Pasadena to attend a luncheon in celebration of his recently published biography, The Big Sea. As the car in which he was being driven got nearer his destination he heard the strains of Irvin Berlin’s recently revised, “God Bless America.” The music was coming from a “sound-truck” parked directly across the street from the hotel. It displayed a banner with the phrase “100 percent American” written in gold lettering. A large crowd had gathered in front of the hotel with picket signs emblazoned with Hughes’s name, causing traffic and general chaos. With the car unable to move forward, Hughes got out a few blocks away and walked, unnoticed, through the crowd. In the hotel lobby the manager and the organizer of the event, George Palmer Putnam, met him and explained that Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson had sent about a hundred of her followers to protest his appearance. McPherson had recently denounced Hughes from her Angelus Temple pulpit as a “radical and anti-Christ,” saying, “there are many devils among us, but the most dangerous of all is the red devil. And now there comes among us a red devil in black skin!” Heeding her advice, her supporters had come to distribute flyers denouncing Hughes as a Communist and an Atheist. Embarrassed by the ruckus, Hughes withdrew from the event before it began and headed back to Los Angeles.
What so upset America’s first true “celebrity preacher”? A poem. A poem Hughes wrote in 1932 in which McPherson was portrayed, some would say aptly, as a materialistic religious exploiter. During the 1920s and 1930s McPherson rode a wave of popularity previously unknown to American ministers. Her 5000-seat Angelus Temple in Los Angeles netted her millions of dollars annually, providing her a lavish lifestyle that belied her humble Salvation Army roots. By the time her name appeared in “Goodbye, Christ” McPherson’s career had already been marked by charges of charlatanism, lawsuits, a mysterious disappearance (and an even stranger reappearance), two divorces, and a sex scandal.
Here is the heart of the poem—and mind you, this poem would haunt Hughes’s career for the rest of his life.
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 now,
You’re getting in the way of things, Lord.
And please take Saint Ghandi 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!
“Goodbye, Christ,” became a lightning rod in many American and African American communities, generating debates about Hughes, the political efficacy of poetry, and the state of American religion. A true touchstone, it was a hot topic in schools, social clubs, private parties, places of employment, and churches. There had been few literary works by an African American that proved to be so controversial among African Americans.
In terms of Great Depression literature, however, “Goodbye-Christ” was not unique. Throughout the decade of the 1930s, leftist or “proletarian novelists” such as Jack Conroy (The Disinherited), Michael Gold (Jews without Money), Edward Anderson (Hungry Men) and Henry Roth (Call it Sleep), wrote about the exploits of capitalism, how the Depression disproportionately affected the poor, and about the lives and deplorable living conditions of the working class—often with a strident critique of the religious status quo. These themes also “drastically affected” the work of many poets, including William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Edwin Rolfe, who published in leftist journals such as The Anvil and New Masses. As Morris Dickstein has recently claimed, “the social disruptions of the 1930s were so dire that even poets were swept up by them.” Examples of Hughes’s “proletarian poetry” include, “Let American Be America Again,” first published in Esquire Magazine in 1936. “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart/I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars/I am the red man driven from the land/I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek/And finding only the same old stupid plan/Of dog eat dog, or mighty crush of the weak.” In “Park Bench,” a lesser-known example of Hughes’s “proletarian poetry,” the protagonist proclaims, “I live on a park bench/You, Park Avenue/Hell of a distance/Between us two.”
“Goodbye, Christ” belongs among this “proletarian literature” for its social commentary on the indifference of governmental powers, on poverty, and the juxtaposition of the “haves” and the “have nots.” But there is so much else going on here. Despite McPherson’s claim and the assertion of many Hughes scholars, “Goodbye, Christ” was not a declaration of Hughes’s commitment to Communism, nor was it a statement of his disbelief in God. That contention is an over-simplification and a distraction. What I am arguing is that more than anything it could say about Hughes himself, “Goodbye, Christ” emerged as a perfect expression of what I call “the culture of complaint and critique” of American religion among black writers and clergy during the interwar period. In the aftermath of the Fundamentalist Modernist controversy of the 1920s, the thirties were a destabilizing time for religion in America as notions of American religious identity were being negotiated and contested. The seemingly anti-religious rhetoric of “Goodbye, Christ” doubtlessly appeared shocking to most people, but a number of black (and white) ministers from across the nation echoed the sentiments of the poem throughout the decade of the 1930s. Indeed, in many ways, the implication of their ideas (and the level of their rhetoric) eclipsed those expressed by Hughes in “Goodbye, Christ.” They critiqued and complained about the capitalist system, American churches’ alliances with capitalism, and about what they saw as an inherent insufficiency in religion itself.
With this concentrated look at “the culture of critique and complaint,” I place Hughes squarely in the context of American religious liberalism—not a rubric under which we have placed many African Americans or many expressions of African American religion. I make the claim that Langston Hughes espoused various tenants of religious liberalism and it is in this context that he and much of his writing on religion is best understood. I am working against the bulk of the scholarship on Hughes that either misunderstands or dismisses his religious writings because Hughes himself was not religious in any way that his biographers or literary theorists understood. Indeed, there is much resistance to a characterization of Hughes as one who has anything relevant to say about religion because he never confessed a personal belief—which in itself is not entirely true. I’m approaching this, however, from a different premise. I want to suggest that because one is not confessionally religious does not make one “non-religious” or “anti-religious” and it certainly does not render one’s thoughts on religion of no value. And in Hughes’s case, a close examination of the entirety of his religiously-themed work uncovers a sophisticated engagement with modernist currents in American religion at the time. Indeed, his engagement with American and African American religion was a significant aspect of his modernism. “Concerning ‘Goodbye, Christ’” was a prime example of Hughes’s expression and espousal of religious liberalism in substance, content, and implication. It places Hughes in that expansion of the notion of religious liberalism that Leigh Schmidt has called for which includes “a set of cultural exchanges—with art, with cosmopolitanism, and with secularism”—beyond a simple “intellectual program” and involves particular “patterns of living, feeling, and thinking” as Richard Wightman Fox has asserted.
Hughes’s religious liberalism did not always contain the “optimism” characteristic of many religious liberals of the time, but it did have many other of the principal features, including individualism, ecumenism, cosmopolitanism, humanism, “a certain generosity or charitableness toward divergent opinions,” as Sydney Ahlstrom called it, a strong emphasis on the social (or practical or material) aspects of religion, ethics, and moral reform. It placed reason and experience over emotionalism put confidence in higher criticism and the scientific method. Just as crucial to Hughes’s religious liberalism was a desire to liberate himself from the creedal commitments that he viewed to be principally at the service of ecclesial and State power. To be religious to was to be free and creatively free of dogma, creeds, and institutional powers. The Negro artist as he said in 1926 is “not afraid of himself”—a statement infused with a Whitmanesque sensibility. Not only do we see then with the story of this poem that literature played a key role in the “religious ferment” of the interwar period and was, as Sorret has claimed, “essential to the cultures of American religious liberalism,” we also witness important counter narratives to the primarily Protestant, confessional, and often conservative ones that have dominated African American religious history.
LANGSTON HUGHES WROTE “Goodbye, Christ” while on a trip to Russia in 1932 where he was to make a Russian-produced film on race relations, but apparently never intended to publish it. It was Otto Huiswood, the black Communist from Dutch Guiana and friend of Hughes’s, who obtained the poem and sent it to the Negro Worker, the COMINTERN—Communist Third International journal based in Germany—(without Hughes’s permission or consent) where it appeared in the journal’s November-December issue. By that time, Hughes was off on a much-anticipated journey to Soviet Central Asia to explore race relations there, unaware of the gathering storm.
The storm hit with great force. Just weeks after it was published in the Negro Worker, “Goodbye, Christ” appeared in the Baltimore Afro-American, which introduced it for the first time to a wider African American audience. The response was immediate and explosive.
Another African American newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier, did not reprint “Goodbye, Christ” until March 1933, the year that the US officially recognized the Soviet Union. But the debate in its pages began long before that. For seven months editorials appeared espousing pro and con views from all across the country.
By January 1941 it had become clear to Hughes, his publisher, his lawyer, and to many of his friends that “Goodbye, Christ” was a problem he needed to address in a public way with a public statement. Since its publication in 1932 he had received a “mountain of mail” regarding the poem, making it an ever increasing and distracting factor in his career. Aimee Semple McPherson had not ceased her attacks from the previous year and the Saturday Evening Post had printed an unauthorized spread of the poem in its Christmas issue—without commentary, which suggested it was a new poem. The embarrassing episode in Pasadena was damaging enough, but Hughes’ publisher at Knopf and his lawyer felt that the unauthorized reprint in the Post “required a comeback and explanation.” So at Hollow Hills farm in Monterey, California and desperately sick with the flu, Hughes began writing a statement he called “Concerning ‘Goodbye, Christ.’” He would revise and edit the statement for the next twenty years.
Hughes disliked “statements” but was even more adverse to controversy, and he was distraught that a poem from his past required any response at all. Writing several friends throughout the months of January and February 1941 he revealed just how disheartened he had become. To Matthew Crawford he wrote: “Golly! How I hate all this controversy! [I’m] deluged with letters from everybody left, right, colored, and Christians.” To Louise Thompson he despaired, “the New Year came down on my head like a ton of bricks!!!” because of the flu, a toothache, “Aimee and the SATURDAY EVENING POST.” He enclosed a copy of the statement in his letter to Thompson and requested that she get back to him with her reactions, conceding as he also did to Crawford that the situation required “some sort of statement.”
Shifting at times between apology and defense, the various versions of “Concerning ‘Goodbye, Christ’” expressed Hughes’s view that the poem had been greatly misunderstood and wrongfully handled by his enemies. Over the years, the poem had been reprinted by the likes of the KKK, the Minute Women of America, and Gerald L. K. Smith and his “America First” Party. Smith, a nationalist, anti-communist, anti-Jewish agitator had turned the poem into a rallying cry against Hughes and anyone in support of him. While most of “Concerning, ‘Goodbye, Christ’” was intended to address the accusation that he was a Communist, the statement was just as adamant that Hughes was not an Atheist, issues which most of his detractors had conflated. Indeed, later versions of the statement addressed accusations of irreligion in greater detail than accusations of his alleged membership in the Communist party.
The first versions of “Concerning ‘Goodbye, Christ’” struck a defiant and politically charged tone. Hughes characterized those who used the poem to stain his reputation as “the most anti-Negro, anti-Jewish, anti-Labor, and anti-Roosevelt groups in our country.” They could “hardly be called Christians,” he insisted, because their actions did not honor Christ. They made democracy and religion a reactionary “evil” that masked their hatred of blacks and their anti-Semitism. Conceding that he had once belonged to organizations that supported leftist causes—as did other high profile Americans such as Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Vincent Sheen—Hughes concluded the statement by asserting his “freedom of speech” and his right to oppose his attackers. The poem was “no reflection on Christ” and was not intended to be “anti-religious” as they had claimed. It was, rather, “a poem 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.”
Hughes tempered the defiant tone of the statement when he was called before Joseph McCarthy and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) in March 1953, one of 169 that would be held in 1953 and 1954. Hughes’s summons to appear offered no explanation, but within the first few moments of the interrogation it was clear that “Goodbye, Christ” sat at the center of the committee’s interest in questioning him.
They may also have been concerned about Hughes’s rumored homosexuality, although they posed no direct questions in that regard. By the 1950s, speculation that Hughes was homosexual had been a mainstay of Harlem gossip for many years, and as historian David Johnson has shown, in 1950s Washington, suspected homosexuals, perhaps more so than Communists, were considered serious threats to national security.
The first day of the interrogation was a “closed” session conducted by Republican Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Illinois. Roy Cohn served as special council. After a few preliminary questions with regard to Hughes’s age, employment, and residence, Dirksen explained that Hughes had been called before the subcommittee because of a federally funded propaganda campaign that had been launched by the Federal Government as a Cold War tactic. Congress had appropriated over eighty-five million dollars “for the purpose of propagandizing the free world” with pro-American literature to be placed in libraries. When it was discovered the Hughes’s poetry books had inadvertently been a part of this effort, the subcommittee deemed it necessary to have him explain if his work was in fact pro-American rather than pro-Communist.
Cohn, already recognized at that early stage in his career as one of the most ruthless lawyers in the country, made repeated attempts to get Hughes to confess that he had been a member of the Communist party and that he still believed in the ideals of Communism. Hughes responded by saying he had never to his knowledge attended a Communist party meeting and as to whether he believed in Communist ideals, “I would have to know what you mean by your definition of communism,” he retorted. When Dirksen took command of the questioning he wasted no time revealing that the interrogation was rooted in the Pasadena incident and one of Hughes’s poems, “Goodbye, Christ.” Before reading the first stanza of the poem, Dirksen stated that his “familiarity with the Negro people” led him to conclude that they were “innately a very devout and religious people.” He wanted to know if Hughes thought the “Book is dead” (the Bible) and whether or not “Goodbye, Christ” could be considered an accurate reflection of African American religious values. The underlying current of the question was to determine if the poem represented Hughes’s atheism, and therefore, his belief in Communism. Hughes’s answer reflected an important shift in his statement about “Goodbye, Christ” as he began for the first time to downplay the significance of the poem, understate its quality, and emphasize that it had long been misused and misunderstood.
All pretensions about the true reason for which Hughes has been summoned before the PSI were abandoned during the public hearing chaired by Senator McCarthy the next day. Sure in the knowledge that “Goodbye, Christ” prompted the subcommittee’s insistence that he was both an Atheist and a Communist, Hughes had his lawyer, Frank Reeves, an African American from Washington, D.C. to read the latest version of “Concerning, ‘Goodbye, Christ,’” where he stated in closing—in mantra-like fashion—“I am not now an atheist, and never have been an atheist . . . . I am not a member of the Communist Party now and have never been a member of the Communist Party.”
The appearance before the PSI devastated Hughes. At the end of two days of rapid-fire questioning he acquiesced by denouncing a poem he had proclaimed to Carl Van Vechten as early as 1933 that he liked “as well as anything I ever did.” Faced with McCarthy and his inquisitors, Hughes chose to give the subcommittee what they most desired—a reason to earmark “Goodbye, Christ” as an atheistic piece of Communist propaganda from his past and far removed from his present political sympathies. It was both an artistic and political compromise, but to do otherwise would have further jeopardized his reputation and quite possibly his career.
Ironically, as a means to humiliate Hughes, McCarthy and his fellow inquisitors forced him to provide examples of his work that showed his “pro-democratic belief” and “faith in Democracy” when throughout the 1940s that was precisely the theme of many of his poems and other writings. When Senator McClellan asked, “have you written other works, other books that repudiate the philosophies expressed in these writings that we now find in the libraries?” Hughes mentioned “Freedom’s Plow.” Written in 1943 at the request of Lester B. Granger, executive secretary of the National Urban League in New York, the “prose poem” was an optimist social vision of America that saw blacks and whites building the country together. “America!/Land created in common/Dream nourished in common/Keep your hand on the plow!/Hold on!” In explaining the poem to PSI members Hughes said that the country had “many problems still to solve,” but it was “young, big, strong, and beautiful.” Justice was for all and “all of us are a part of democracy.”
Before Hughes was dismissed from the proceedings, the committee dealt him a parting insult. McCarthy asked him if he felt he had been “mistreated” by the subcommittee during the interrogation. Hughes replied that he was “agreeably surprised” at how “courteous and friendly” they proceedings had been, particularly from Dirksen, who was “most gracious.” Not once throughout the two-day session was Hughes pressed to further expound upon his stated intent that “Goodbye, Christ” aimed to address profiteering and racketeering in American religion.
BY THE EARLY 1960s versions of “Concerning ‘Goodbye, Christ’” made little mention of Hughes’s enemies, the wrongful way they were using the poem, or of his “freedom of speech.” It had transformed into a carefully constructed, non-defensive explanation of the poem and an obliquely worded statement of faith. Hughes had long been frustrated that the bulk of his religiously-themed work had not been taken to suggest that it was possible that he himself was religious. In the closed session with the PSI he had remarked to Dirksen, “Certainly I have written many religious poems, many poems about Christ, and prayers and my own feeling is not what I believe you seem to think [those poems] as meaning.” And while any confusion as to whether Hughes was a person of faith must be attributed to his reticence to speak openly and clearly on this point, he was by the 1960s spending most of his creative energies writing gospel plays and other religious-themed works such as “Black Nativity.” He had made a definite shift in his work, having proclaimed to Louise Thompson as early as 1940 that he was “laying off political poetry for a while . . . and going back to nature, Negroes, and love.” He had also, in his words, “gone back to the Church.” Hughes still claimed that his detractors had misunderstood the irony of the poem, but devoted more space in the statement to highlight the repeated occurrences of religious themes in his poems.
Literary scholars maintain that Hughes’s 1930s “radical poetry” of which “Goodbye, Christ” is a part does not represent his best work. As James Smethurst states, “no portion of Hughes’s literary career has been more commonly dismissed than that of the 1930s.” However, “Goodbye, Christ” generated extensive debates about Hughes, poetry, and religion in America during a time of national crisis. The poem highlighted the way in which literature was a key component to the religious and political discourses of the 1920s and 1930s. And Hughes acknowledged as much in a commentary he wrote about his life approach to religion and to his craft called “Christians and Communists.” “I know religion is one thing and politics is another, but in ethics and morals they meet and merge.”
“Goodbye, Christ” was not a statement of Hughes’s “Atheism” or an indication of his alleged membership in the Communist party. It was, rather, a denunciation of what Hughes perceived to be the corrupting influence of capitalism on American churches, which provided fertile ground for “profiteering” and “racketeering” by religionists. Far from being a remote example of “anti-religious” sentiment, the poem was integral to a culture of complaint and critique among clergy as well as lay people who implicated American churches for social inaction during the Great Depression. Like Hughes, who wanted to “make room for a new guy,” these clergy and lay people articulated their perspectives from within the tradition of American religious liberalism—employing its forms and discourses—to call for a radical redirection of American religion and an expanded view of how to work “religiously” in the world.
Wallace Best is a professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton University. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics at Washington University in St. Louis on October 21, 2013.
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