Langston Hughes, my father, Joseph Stalin and Jesus

23 Dec

I don’t yet know what my father thought of Langston Hughes‘ work in general, or whether their circles crossed in Harlem. But just after  Christmas Day in 1940, Ebenezer had some choice words for one of  Hughes’ most controversial poems, titled Goodbye Christ. Here’s the poem:

Listen, Christ,
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,
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.

In an article in Poetry magazine, Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad noted that during the most difficult days of the Great Depression, Hughes “had composed some of the harshest political verse ever penned by an American. These pieces include Good Morning Revolution and Columbia, but above all, Goodbye Christ. Here the speaker of the poem ridicules the legend of Jesus in favor of the radical reality of Marx, Lenin, ‘worker,’ ‘peasant,’ ‘me.'”

Langston Hughes is interrogated by members of the House Committee on Un-American Activities  in 1953.

The poem was not so much anti-Christian; its intention was to call out those who would use religion to oppress or maintain what he considered  the status quo. The poem garnered criticism over the years, but gained prominence in 1940 when a group of fundamentalist Christians protested a November 1940 author luncheon Hughes was attending in Pasadena, Calif.

“Sent from the temple of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, the picketers distributed copies of the poem while a sound truck played ‘God Bless America.'” wrote author Faith Berry in Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem. (Lawrence Hill & Company, 1983.) “They then marched into the luncheon, waving a poster of Goodbye Christ, to denounce Hughes and the presiding host, George Palmer Putnam, in front of over five hundred guests. The stunt was arranged by Aimee’s publicity man, who was quickly arrested. Meanwhile, to avoid further embarrassment to the hotel management and luncheon officials, Hughes politely withdrew from the program. Outside the hotel, where a few well-wishers tried to shake his hand as he entered a waiting car, one of Aimee’s Four Square Gospel supporters shouted, ‘Down where I come from, we don’t shake hands with niggers.’ Blaring in the background, the sound truck continued with ‘God Bless America,'” Berry added.

Hughes must have thought that the protesters were a prime example of hypocrites among the faithful to whom the poem referred.

In December of that year, the Saturday Evening Post published the poem, reportedly without Hughes’ permission. That fact seems lost on my father, whose use of the word “contributes,” suggests that Hughes actively participated in its publication there.  And, according to Berry,  Hughes  spent his Christmas holiday crafting a press statement to respond to the public outcry. (I feel his pain!)

In a column published in the New York Age dated Dec. 28, 1940 my father got into the act:

“Just at the season of the year when Christians throughout the world are about to celebrate the birth of the lowly Nazarene, Jesus Christ, whom some persons prefer to call the Son of God and others the second person of the Trinity, Langston Hughes, Negro poet, contributes a ‘poem’ to the Saturday Evening Post which runs the gamut of cynicism and absurdity. The bit of verse is captioned Goodbye Christ.

One cannot criticize Mr. Hughes too strongly for his disbelief in the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. He is not the least alone in such. Disbelief in the ‘immaculate conception is heard from the mouths of comparative youngsters who maintain the right to free thinking on the possible facts. Men of the Cloth occasionally, off the record, refuse to endorse all the theories advanced and Men of Letters have been outspoken in refuting the story of Jesus Christ.”

The real bone of contention for my father, at least according to his column, was the fact that Hughes held up Joseph Stalin as a “logical successor to Christ.”

“Mr. Hughes proves his impotence as a Communist when at a time when in the face of certain exposures and activities thousands of his Comrades have traveled away from the group. Stalin may appear as a logical successor to Christ in the eyes of the poet, but to millions of others he is just a Super-Barabas. Stalin obviously has no religion at all, but he obviously has a creed: that of murdering his enemies – justified and unjustified and even innocents who think in terms other than he does. At this point he is playing tag with Adolph Hitler, despot of all despots, despite their contempt for each other; because out of a self-emaciated world, Stalin, Langston Hughes’ Savior, hopes to rise Ruler Number One, his methods notwithstanding.

When Langston Hughes his gem of cynicism and absurdity and his Joseph Stalin will have passed to the limbo of the forgotten, the life of Jesus Christ will still be alive in the hearts of Christians everywhere. The lowly Nazarene left with the world not a religion to destroy but to love and to cherish. The world is the better off for his coming; when it suffers it is not because of his teachings but because it fails to follow such simple but far-fetched exhortations as ‘Be ye kind to one another’ and ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’

If the life of Christ had come to the world only to bring the Christmas season with the spirit of making others happy and of goodwill towards men, it would have justified its coming. But it has done much more: It suggests a way of life for which a better substitute has yet to be found.”

While my father makes a valid point about Stalin and his ilk, I can’t help but wonder why he is so exorcised about Goodbye Christ.  After all, my father was pretty harsh in his criticism of racism in his own Episcopal Church, and one of his favorite verbal targets was Father Divine.  Was it that Hughes dared express irreverence toward Jesus Christ or was it the other Big C— Communism, that got under his skin?

According to  Rampersad, the saga of Goodbye Christ did not end in the 1940s.  The poem appeared again by subpoena, before Sen. Joseph McCarthy‘s House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953.

I sure hope my father’s column was not a gift to the McCarthyites. I’d have to call him Ebenezer Scrooge!

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