Langston’s Salvation: A New Book on the Religious Thought of Langston Hughes

This post is part of our blog series that announces the publication of selected new books in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem was published by New York University Press.


The author of Langston’s Salvation is Wallace Best, Professor of Religion and African American Studies and Faculty Affiliate of History at Princeton University. He earned a PhD in United States History from Northwestern University and an MA in Church History and Theological Studies from Wheaton College (Illinois). The focus of his research and teaching merge at the crucial intersections of American religion, African American religious history, urban religion, cultural studies, and gender and sexuality studies. With attention given to the lived experiences of religion in urban contexts, he employs various historical and literary methodologies to elucidate the ways religious discourses, practices, movements, and institutions shape American society in general and African American life in particular. He is the author of Passionately Human, No Less Divine: Religion and Culture in Black Chicago, 1915-1952 and Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem. He has also published in Religion and American Culture, Religion and Politics, Fides Et Historia, U.S. Catholic Historian, Callaloo, Reuters, and Huffington Post. He has held fellowships at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University and the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at Harvard University. Currently he is a Distinguished Lecturer for the Organization of American Historians and serves on the Standing Committee of LGBTQ Status in the Profession of the American Historical Society. Follow him on Twitter @nomadprof.

Langston’s Salvation offers a fascinating exploration into the religious thought of Langston Hughes.  Known for his poetry, plays, and social activism, the importance of religion in Hughes’ work has historically been ignored or dismissed. This book puts this aspect of Hughes work front and center, placing it into the wider context of twentieth-century American and African American religious cultures. Best brings to life the religious orientation of Hughes work, illuminating how this powerful figure helped to expand the definition of African American religion during this time. Best argues that contrary to popular perception, Hughes was neither an avowed atheist nor unconcerned with religious matters. He demonstrates that Hughes’ religious writing helps to situate him and other black writers as important participants in a broader national discussion about race and religion in America.
Through a rigorous analysis that includes attention to Hughes’s unpublished religious poems, Langston’s Salvation reveals new insights into Hughes’s body of work, and demonstrates that while Hughes is seen as one of the most important voices of the Harlem Renaissance, his writing also needs to be understood within the context of twentieth-century American religious liberalism and of the larger modernist movement. Combining historical and literary analyses with biographical explorations of Langston Hughes as a writer and individual, Langston’s Salvation opens a space to read Langston Hughes’ writing religiously, in order to fully understand the writer and the world he inhabited.

As Wallace Best portrays him in this stunning, brilliantly argued and written work, Langston Hughes is a poet and prophet who spoke to the deepest dilemmas of African American Christianity in the uncompromising language of religious and artistic modernism. The road to Langston’s “salvation” was not straight, and as he charts its course over time, Best enlarges the field of American religious history and the meaning of modern ‘religion’ itself.” —Robert A. Orsi, Professor of Religious Studies and History, Northwestern University

J.T. Roane: Please share with us the creation story of your book–those experiences, those factors, those revelations that caused you to research this specific area and produce this unique book.

Wallace Best: Most people think Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was an atheist. He was not. And while it would be incorrect to suggest that he was a religious believer, it is just as wrong to consider him “anti-religious.”  This is an important distinction not only for how we read his poetry, but also for how we view African American religion more broadly. The history of African American religion has been written primarily from the perspective of religious “believers.” But I have come to understand that the perspective of religious skeptics, the doubtful, and the uncertain have been just as instrumental in its construction. Indeed, many of the gaps in our understanding of the vast expanse of Black religion can be filled by insights from African American literature and the literature of Langston Hughes in particular.

Hughes wrote a great deal about religion over the course of his long and illustrious career.  This, at first, surprised me, as I’m sure it does others. We have become accustomed to seeing him as “secular to the bone,” as one of his biographers has claimed. During the research for my first book, however, I concluded that I would have to rethink Hughes’s “secularity.” I would have to rethink Langston Hughes entirely. While conducting research for an exploration of religious transformations in Chicago during the Great Migration, Hughes’s name kept appearing in the documents and appearing in unexpected places in those documents. It appeared in church bulletins and other church related print media, religious editorials and essays, the private papers of ministers and other church workers, in sermons, and gospel music programs, to name a few. This intrigued me. Why was an “atheist” fully involved in Chicago and Harlem’s world of religion and churches, regularly attending services, gospel concerts, and writing extensively about these worlds?

This drew me back to Hughes’s work, prompting me to read him “religiously,” or through the lens of religious analysis. I discovered that most of his work has always been infused with religion, including his most famous poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Indeed, Hughes wrote as much about religion as any other topic. So, while not himself religious, Hughes was a thinker about religion to an extraordinary degree. A look to his life and work, therefore, not only suggests a broader reach for the history and historiography of American and African American religion, it also broadens and deepens our conception of religion itself.

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J. T. Roane

J.T. Roane is assistant professor of Africana Studies in the School for Social Transformation at Arizona State University. Roane is broadly concerned about matters of geography, ecologies, sexuality, and religion in relation to Black communities. He is at work on a manuscript, Dark Agoras: Insurgent Black Social Life and the Politics of Place in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @JTRoane.