Langston Hughes' "Goodbye, Christ"
Introduction and Text of Poem
Nine years after the publication of Langston Hughes' "Goodbye, Christ," on January 1, 1941, Hughes was scheduled to deliver a talk about Negro folk songs at the Pasadena Hotel. Members of Aimee Semple McPherson's Temple of the Four Square Gospel picketed the hotel with a sound truck playing "God Bless America." Likely those members of the McPherson temple became aware of the poem because McPherson is mentioned in it. The protestors passed out copies of Hughes' poem, "Goodbye, Christ," even though they had not secured permission to copy and distribute it.
A few weeks later, The Saturday Evening Post, heretofore no friend to black writers, also mentioned in the poem, also printed the poem without permission. The poem had received little attention until these two events. But Hughes had been criticized for his "revolutionary" writings and apparent sympathy for the Soviet form of government. On March 24, 1953, Hughes was called to testify before the Senate Committee on Government Operations.
(Use of the term, "Negro": Langston Hughes, who lived from 1902 to 1967, uses the term "Negro," not "African American," because Hughes was writing several decades before 1988, when "Rev. Jesse Jackson convinced America’s black population to adopt the term 'African-American'.")
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.
Reading of "Goodbye, Christ"
"Goodbye, Christ" is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is addressing Christ, telling him to leave because He is no longer wanted. The speaker is employing irony and sarcasm to express his distrust and disapproval of the many people, including the clergy, who have used religion only for financial gain.
Serving God or Mammon
In the first verse paragraph (versagraph), the speaker explains to Christ that things are different now from the way they were back in Christ's day; the speaker figures that back then Christ's presence might have been appreciated, but now "[t]he popes and the preachers've / Made too much money from [your story]." And that complaint is addressed in the poem that certain individuals and organizations have used the name of Christ to make money: "They've pawned you / Till you've done wore out."
The speaker makes it clear that it is not only Christianity that has been desecrated, for he also includes Hinduism when he tells Christ "please take Saint Gandhi with you when you go." It's not only white people like McPherson, but also "big black Saint Becton," a charlatan preacher Hughes mentions in his autobiography, The Big Sea. Hughes is, in no way, repudiating Jesus Christ and true religion. He is, however, excoriating those whom he considers charlatans, who have profited only financially without highlighting the true meaning of Christ's (or other religions') teachings.
Hughes on "Goodbye, Christ"
In editor Faith Berry's Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writing of Langston Hughes, Berry brings together a large collection of writings for which Hughes did not seek wide publication. Some of his early politically left-leaning poems that appeared in obscure publications managed to circulate, and Hughes was labeled a Communist, which he always denied in his speeches.
About "Goodbye, Christ," Hughes has explained that he had withdrawn the poem from publication, but it had appeared without his permission and knowledge. Hughes also insisted that he had never been a member of the Communist Party. He went so far as to say he wished Christ would return to save humanity, which was in dire need of saving, as it could not save itself. Earlier in his immaturity, Hughes had believed that the communist form of government would be more favorable to blacks, but he became aware that his VIP treatment in Russia was a ruse, calculated to make blacks think that communism was friendlier to blacks than capitalism while ultimately hoodwinking them just as the Democratic Party did later on in the century.
In his senate testimony on March 24, 1953, Hughes makes his political inclinations clear that he had never read any book on the theory of socialism and communism. Also, he had not delved into the stances of the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States. Hughes claimed that his interest in politics was prompted solely by his emotion. Only through his own emotions had he glanced at what politics might have to offer him in figuring out personal issues with society. So in "Goodbye, Christ," the following versagraph likely defines the poet's attitude at its emotional depths:
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!
Hughes spent a year in Russia and came back to America writing glowing reports of the wonderful equalities enjoyed by all Russians, which many critics wrongly interpreted to indicate that Hughes became a communist. On January 1, 1941, wrote the following clear-eyed explanation that should once and for all put to rest the notion that his poem was meant to serve blasphemous purposes:
"Goodbye, Christ" does not represent my personal viewpoint. It was long ago withdrawn from circulation and has been reprinted recently without my knowledge or consent. I would not now use such a technique of approach since I feel that a mere poem is quite unable to compete in the power to shock with the current horrors of war and oppression abroad in the greater pat of the world I have never been a member of the Communist party. Furthermore, I have come to believe that no system of ethics, religion, morals, or government is of permanent value which does not first start with and change the human heart. Mortal frailty, greed, and error know no boundary lines. The explosives of war do not care whose hand fashion them. Certainly, both Marxists and Christians can b cruel. Would that Christ came back to save us all. We do not know how to save ourselves. (my emphasis added) —from Good Morning Revolution: Uncollected Writing of Langston Hughes, page 149
Irony in "Goodbye, Christ"
While it may be difficult for devout Christians who love Christ and his teachings to read such seemingly blasphemous writing, it is important to distinguish between the literal and the figurative: Hughes' "Goodbye, Christ" must be read through the lens of irony, and realized as a statement against the financial usurpation of religion, and not a repudiation of Christ and the great spiritual masters of all religions.
It should be remembered that Hughes' seemingly blasphemous poem simply creates a character who was speaking ironically, even sarcastically, in order to call out the actual despicable blasphemers who desecrate true religion with duplicity and chicanery.
© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes