Religion in the Work of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes (Carl Van Vechten, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University).

It was 1914 when twelve-year-old Langston Hughes went to a Black Church for the first time. It marked him for the rest of his life. That summer, he and his foster aunt, Mary Reed, attended St. Luke AME Church’s revival meetings in Lawrence, Kansas. St. Luke devoted one night to the African American youth as they tried to lead them to “salvation.” Hughes and several other children sat on a bench in the scorching heat. Throughout the revival service, youth left the bench one-by-one and walked toward the front to declare publicly Christ as their savior. As the night grew, Hughes was the only one left sitting on the bench. The congregation begged and prayed for Hughes to follow his peers in proclaiming Christ. Hughes acquiesced, but he felt he had a forsaken salvation because he “failed to see Jesus.” Yet, his failed attempt for “salvation” and his Black Church experiences left an indelible effect on him. He later confessed, “[W]hen I began to write poetry that influence came through.”

Wallace Best probes these keen words in Langston’s Salvation: American Religion and the Bard of Harlem, a meticulous account of Hughes’s religious provocations in his literary work. Best, a professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University, argues that Hughes’s religious epiphany at the revival meeting followed him and influenced his prolific literary career for the next fifty-three years. Langston’s Salvation follows Hughes’s life work chronologically, spanning the 1930s through the 1960s. Best examines Hughes’s archives, memoir, and poetry published in newspapers and magazines. Offering astounding historical and literary analysis to some of his widely popular and some of his lesser -known works such as “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Tambourines to Glory respectively, Best explicates Hughes’s works to explore the religious orientation in his writings.

Best refutes literary scholars Arnold Rampersad in The Life of Langston Hughes and Leslie Catherine Sanders in “I’ve Wrestled with Them All My Life” for depicting Hughes as “secular to the bone,” “notoriously reticent about matters of religion,” and “stay[ing] away from religious topics and themes” (10). He declares that only employing a dichotomy of religious or non-religious misses Langston Hughes’s complicated relationship with religion. This religious complexity does not lend itself to atheism. Hughes himself denounced characterizations of him as antireligious. He developed a critical posture to religion. Best identifies Hughes as a “thinker about religion,” asserting that he wrote, “as much about religion as he did any other topic” (235).

As a thinker about religion, Hughes tested its categorical boundaries to engage with Black church cultures and, more broadly, American religious institutions and Christian theology. He used religious language and themes such as mercy, redemption, resurrection, sin, prayer, and salvation as an expansive framework. Best focuses on salvation throughout the book. “What Hughes came to understand as salvation,” he notes, “was by no means stable or fixed but shifted and changed in his life and in his work, often according to the genre in which he was writing.” Moreover, for Hughes, “salvation was not always a category of ‘religious’ experience, as it also became a discursive means of articulating intellectual, artistic, and political expressions” (5). Hughes merged the distinctions between the sacred and profane, melded musical genres in sacred spaces, and blended his political and intellectual themes into his understanding of salvation, contesting the adherence to commonly accepted standards of a religious term. By expanding the breadth of religious rhetoric, Best contends that Hughes’s writings and his life fit within the twentieth-century American religious liberalism and modernism movements.

“Concerning ‘Goodbye Christ’” stands out as an exemplary chapter. The poem “Goodbye Christ,” published in 1932, became one of Hughes’s most contentious poems during his career. Latter day critics used the poem to demonstrate his anti-religious ideas. The controversial poem led to widespread outrage at the time. Best acknowledges that “Goodbye Christ” “grew from and reflected a time when Hughes was furthest removed from the institution of the church, the most critical of the Christian religion generally, and perhaps his most skeptical about the church, religion, and God.” (131). He contends that to cast Hughes as an “atheist” is to misread him like critics who have misplaced his metaphors. Instead, the author offers an alternative interpretation. Here, Christ can be seen as “a metaphor for churches in America” (132). Most importantly, Best reads the poem as a social commentary of capitalism and those who benefit from “capitalist religion” (133).

Beneath Best’s revisionist rejection of Hughes’s atheism there exists another substantive point: Hughes represents the shared experience of others who may have had a “failed salvation” (3). In many Black churches, including the AME church that Hughes attended, parishioners would undergo a public moment of “salvation” to declare to the congregation “one’s transformative experience with Christ” confirming their place within this community of believers and joining them in the body of Christ (x-xi). Hughes’s foster aunt promised the twelve-year-old “at the moment of salvation he would ‘see and hear and feel Jesus’” (1). Like other Black youth, when Hughes did not undergo the type of spiritual enlightenment and alignment his aunt promised, salvation became an unfulfilling experience of disappointment, shame, and disillusionment. Unable to transcend and converse spiritually with the son of God, he felt psychologically and spiritually inadequate for full belonging in the Black church—the oldest Black American intra-racial social institution. With his embrace of God, unrequited salvation hauntingly shaped his life long afterwards. Hughes, therefore, developed complicated relationships to the church, its members, and church leaders. Hughes once wrote, “I’m not a church member because I don’t always understand ministers” (234). Yet he cherished the experiences founded in the Black Church.

In addition to re-situating Hughes within religious thought movements, Best gestures to Hughes’s appreciation of multiple types of Black religiosity. This leaves the reader wanting to know more about how Hughes perceived other forms of religious doctrines, ones that perhaps led Hughes to create his own amalgamation of Africana religions. As Best highlights, Hughes traveled to Harlem from Kansas, and then visited Chicago, Washington, D.C., and places outside the US such as Mexico, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. He crisscrossed the country on speaking tours. As a traveler, both domestically and internationally, Hughes observed an array of religious traditions. “During his visits to his father in Mexico,” Best writes, “Hughes developed a fondness for Catholic ritual” (56). When his father died, he returned to Mexico and attended daily Mass. While visiting Chicago, Hughes became enraptured by the Holiness-Pentecostal church’s worship culture and drawn to storefront churches. He also attended the largest Black Catholic church. Hughes intuitively became an ethnographer as he moved through and across geographies. By tracing his movement closely and his engagement with various religions, Best might have expanded on this plurality and postulate Hughes’s own version of Africana religions. This would undoubtedly lend even more evidence to support his argument that Hughes’s approach to our understanding of religious salvation was nuanced and multifaceted. Moreover, it would add further insight into the religious overtones and themes emerging in Hughes’s literary production.

If Hughes’s life served as a testament to the capacious religious beliefs that he personally adopted and professionally fashioned in his writings, his death was no different. Before he died, he produced a document entitled “Last Rites,” detailing his requests for the management of his body and memorial service. He wanted a celebration unaffiliated with a church. He vowed to not have any praying or sermons given. He desired cremation. He wanted gospel, jazz, and blues music playing throughout his service. The “Last Rites” was his final social commentary on religion, perhaps the most important one: his life. Even in his death, his unique religious sensibilities had the final say. Wallace Best’s Langston’s Salvation shows us the ways in which Hughes proactively broke the mold asserting his agency as the author and finisher of his own faith and the co-creator of his own salvation experience.

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N’Kosi Oates

N’Kosi Oates is a doctoral student in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University. His research interest includes twentieth-century U.S. history, U.S. black social movements, black radicalism, and Black political thought that intersects with history, philosophy, and religion. Follow him on Twitter @NKosiOates.

Comments on “Religion in the Work of Langston Hughes

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    I’ve just been gifted a copy of Best’s book. I knew it was going to be an interesting read and this review confirms it. Can’t wait to pick it up.

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    This book is definitely next on the bucket list. Oh, and great article btw.

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