Langston Hughes' "Goodbye, Christ"
Use of the Term "Negro"
Please note that Langston Hughes used the term "Negro"—not African American—because the latter designation was not used by anyone at the time Hughes lived and wrote.
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 member 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.
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.
Reading of "Goodbye, Christ"
What Does the Poem Reveal?
"Goodbye, Christ" is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is addressing Christ, telling him to leave because He is no longer wanted.
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."
But 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."
And 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 religion's) teachings.
Hughes on "Goodbye, Christ"
In 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 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.
No doubt, Hughes did believe that the communist form of government would be more favorable to blacks, but he surely 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, 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 Democrat 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!
Although Hughes spent a year in Russia and came back to America writing glowing reports of the wonderful equalities enjoyed by all Russians, still he did come back, and he did say, "'Goodbye, Christ' does not represent my personal viewpoint'."
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 true blasphemers who desecrate true religion with duplicity and chicanery.
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© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes