American Religion and the Bard of Harlem
New York, NY: NYU Press, November 2017. 320 pages. $35.00. Hardcover. ISBN 9781479834891.For other formats: Link to Publisher’s Website.
Langston’s Salvation—American Religion and the Bard of Harlem is the second of Wallace D. Best’s critical works looking at religion through a literary, artistic, and African American lens. This is the first time that an author has written a book on Hughes that exclusively studies the religious aspects of his works.
In this in-depth look at the influences and inspirations that guided the artistic works of Langston Hughes, the great Harlem Renaissance author, poet, and playwright, Best thoroughly explains the path that led to Hughes’s determination to understand religion, although often from a critical perspective, and incorporates his experiences going back as far as his childhood.
Hughes’s vast array of literary works reflects a continuous quest to understand God and the role of religion, particularly within the Black experience. Best shares one of Hughes’s childhood tales from growing up in St. Luke AME Church in Lawrence, Kansas, that shaped his early recollections of his Christian life. After succumbing to pressure by adults to join other youths in confessing their newfound belief in Christ, Hughes returned home feeling he had deceived the congregation with his false confession and was disappointed that he did not see Jesus, as he once thought would be his experience.
According to Best, this failed salvation experience became the blueprint by which Hughes shaped his writing and interpreted his relationship with God and the study of religion. His poetry, columns, plays, and musicals reflected his ongoing search, along with his love for Black people and colorful Harlem life. Best offers an insightful look at Hughes’s underlying display of his Black heritage and church roots. Having worked odd jobs and traveled from the Midwest to the East Coast and abroad, he settled in Harlem after a stint as a student at Columbia University. As Best notes, Harlem was the seedbed of his religious liberalism.
Displaying the struggles of Blacks through metaphors and literary tropes, Hughes used the cross in messages referring to race, miscegenation, and the trials of Blacks from the 1920s to the 1960s. His poetry blended religious themes with racial entanglements as well as social sins such as “personal indiscretions and worldly behaviors” (76).
Best creates an informative chronological trail that helps connect Hughes’s background with his signature religious poetry. In doing so, he could not avoid highlighting the controversy surrounding “Goodbye Christ,” a poem that was published without Hughes’s permission. Frustrated by the dichotomous treatment of Blacks in the United States as opposed to other countries, and amidst the writing of Great Depression literature in the 1930s, Hughes penned “Goodbye Christ” in Russia during a trip to shoot a film about race. The idea for the poem had been stirring since the Scottsboro case and a recent tour of the American South.
Hughes criticized the universal church, the clergy, the pope, and Gandhi, as well as “big black Saint Becton” (a Harlem-based prosperity preacher) and Aimee McPherson, founder of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel in Los Angeles, both of whom were riddled with public scandal. In addition, he highlighted Marx, Stalin, and Lenin, saying “make way for a new guy with no religion at all” (110).
McPherson took her reference personally and Joseph McCarthy summoned Hughes before the anti-communism committee. “Goodbye Christ” haunted Hughes for many years, yet, as Best states, it provided an “important backdrop to his decision to retreat into the world of theatre and his gospel song-plays in the late 1950s and early 1960s” (151). Although a turning point in Hughes’s life, Best’s extremely detailed recital of pastors, writers, and theologians bantering and refuting the poem’s relevance feels a bit exhaustive.
Like most of his other works, Hughes’s plays covered topics from race and race relations to economic struggles, urban culture, and romance. Best comments that Hughes was drawn to the theatre because of its “ability to capture the lives of ordinary blacks or the low-down folk…it became another means by which he could artistically display his love for black people, the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘ugly’” (174).
Best delivers an explanation for Hughes’s works, including what sometimes feels like unnecessarily-noted minutiae and off-stage drama that surrounded the development of the plays “Don’t You Want to Be Free,” “The Sun Do Move,” “Tambourines to Glory,” and the Christmas-themed “Black Nativity,” to name a few. The reference to some cast members who would go on to infamy adds a bit of panache to his eye for talent, but it also takes up a bit of space.
Best makes a notable point that Hughes created each show with the aim of representing authentic Black culture and religion. Although as time progressed, plays like “Tambourines” were rife with challenge as times changed amidst Black societal strife.
It would have been informative to understand more of Hughes’s social activism influences. Best briefly mentions that Hughes did not have a good relationship with his father, who left home when he was young. However, it is possible that some of his social influences may have come from the paternal side. Two of the organizers of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society were his grandfather, Charles Henry Langston, and his great-uncle, John Mercer Langston, who was also founding dean of the Howard Law School and the first black congressman of Virginia. Surely, their presence in society made some impact on Hughes.
Overall, Langston’s Salvation provides thorough details of Hughes’s transition from a young poet to one who used his message of change and enlightenment in written and spoken form. Best gives an intense perspective of his championing of race issues and quest for religious understanding. It’s a great book for delving more deeply into the meaning of his works.
Marilyn A. Batchelor is a doctoral student in the Department of Religion at Claremont Graduate University.
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