The Tragedy of Langston Hughes and a Warning I Will Heed

It’s Black History Month. The biggest book in my entire library is The Norton Anthology: African American Literature. It has 2,665 pages. Flop it open to the middle (like Psalms in the Bible) and you land on Langston Hughes—1902-1967.

In 1926, he wrote what became a manifesto for black artists of the time, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”

We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. . . . We know we are beautiful. And ugly too.

He published poetry, drama, short stories, essays, political pieces, autobiography, books for children, musicals, the Simple columns that ran for twenty years, a history of the NAACP, libretti for operas and cantatas, and anthologies like Poetry of the Negro.

By the end of his life Hughes was almost everywhere recognized, because of his versatility and skill, as the most representative writer in the history of African American literature and also as probably the most original of all black American poets. (Norton Anthology, 1254)

One of his best known and earliest poems is “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” (You can hear Lanston Hughes read this poem at Poets.org.)

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Tragic was the loss of this talent to the service of Christ. Hughes repudiated both atheism and Christianity. What he saw was Christian exploitation. Here is his most lamentable poem called “Goodbye Christ.”

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,
Even to THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
You ain't no good no more.
They've pawned you
Till you've done wore out.

Goodbye,
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!
Move!

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.

Ronald Meyer says that Hughes later repudiated the poem, but that he never claimed to be a Christian or belong to a church.

My prayer is that the Providence that permitted and formed this tragic and powerful poem will not be in vain, and that selling Christ will be as repulsive to me as it was for Langston Hughes—multiplied by a thousand, since Christ is the Savior and the supreme Treasure of my life.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org