Apart from his apparent disgust for the desolate life that the African Americans were subjected to, Langston Hughes also portrays an evident mistrust of religion, not necessarily towards religion itself but particularly towards those individuals who use religion as a cloak to conceal their true duplicitous and oppressive nature. In arguably he’s most controversial poem, Goodbye Christ; Langston Hughes takes on the role of a disillusioned Christian and repudiates the doctrines set forth in America, which was supposedly a Christian country.
After his visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, Langston Hughes experienced the mechanisms of Socialism; he immediately noted the differences between the Soviet Union and his own country, America. Whereas, in America, he was subjected to racial discrimination and his people underwent a long history of oppression, slavery and segregation, he noted that in the Soviet Union, “white and black, Asiatic and European, Jew and Gentile stood alike as citizens on an equal footing protected from racial inequalities by the law” and so he called for people to question the dominant American beliefs, and to adopt and accept the views of Marxism.
Although the title of the poem “Goodbye Christ” as well as the content suggests renunciation of Christianity, the word Christ in the title, acts as an analogy for Capitalism and the main themes of the poem are actually a repudiation of Capitalism and a renunciation of the immoral and hypocritical use of Christianity. Whilst examining the poem in chronological order, I shall scrutinize the two main themes of the poem, in relation to Langston Hughes history and political ideology.
In the first stanza, the persona is seen addressing Christ, asking him to leave as he is no longer wanted. The persona explains that there exists an immense difference in today’s world, compared to what things were in the times of Christ. Although the speaker acknowledges that Christ’s presence may have had a significant impact during his time and his presence may have been greatly appreciated, His name is not as appreciated now as “the popes and preachers’ve made too much money from it”.
Although in this stanza Hughes particularly excoriates the charlatans who misuse the meaning of Christianity for self-gain, the method in which he addresses them is quite misleading and deviating towards the main message and many orthodox Christians who misunderstood and misinterpreted the main message of the poem found it offensive. In the second stanza, the scrutiny of the charlatans is more apparent. As a continuation of the first stanza, the persona explains the reason for his belief that Christ is no longer appreciated or respected in current society.
The reason for this is that “they’ve sold him to many, kings, general, robbers and killers…Tzar’s…Cossacks, Rockefellers Church and even to the Saturday Evening Post”. The persona argues, that Christ, who through the word ‘sold’ expresses him as more of a commodity rather than the savior he is perceived as, has been made available to anyone who can afford him, regardless of the sins they’ve committed as oppressive figures in society such as kings, generals, emperors and killers.
These oppressive figures also represent the ‘dark’ side of capitalism and the persona asserts that the preacher’s and popes have ‘pawned Christ, until he has worn out’. The mention of Rockefellers Church is particularly important due to the fact that the church was often referred to as the “Socialist Church” and highly criticized for its active use of Biblical verses and the teachings of Christianity to justify all of his decisions and to conceal what many referred to as the Socialist teachings of Christianity. Goodbye, Christ Jesus Lord God Jehovah, beat in on way from here now” The mention of Christ in the third stanza is not only directed towards Christians and Christ, but the words, God, Jehovah and Christ actually represent all other religions and the persona bids farewell to all these religions and capitalism in order to “Make way for a new guy with no religion at all, a real guy names Marx, Communist, Lenin, Peasant, Stalin, Worker, ME”. The last 4 lines of the stanza introduce the key figures that influenced the persona’s communistic ideology.
Marx, Lenin and Stalin were active communists and Hughes was particularly interested by the teachings of Marx and the Marxist ideology. Furthermore, the persona mentions ‘peasant and workers’ who are particularly important in communism. Whereas in America, the African-Americans who were the unappreciated and mistreated workers, peasants and slaves, Communism has no peasants working for people in a higher hierarchy and everyone is regarded as the same, and part of the work force that contributes to the entire economy and all their work is equally appreciated by the government.
Hughes argument that the work of the African- American is what has contributed to the wealth of the white man and the world is also evident in two of his other poems, Advertisement for the Waldorf-Astoria where he ironically invites the poor African-Americans to “come and dine with some of the people who got rich of their labor” and in The Negro Speaks of Rivers where he makes references to the Pyramids in Egypt which were built by the slaves.
The persona capitalizes the word ‘ME’ as all the influential figures he has mentioned as well as the peasants and workers not only represent his approval and appreciation for communism but represent the communistic environment which he prefers where unlike in America, his work and the work of his forefathers is equally appreciated with no racial minority being disregarded. In the fourth stanza, the persona not only calls for the dismissal of Christ or rather capitalism, but excoriates other historical figures including Mahatma Gandhi, Pope Pius, Aimee McPherson and Big Black Becton and sarcastically refers to them as ‘saints’.
The persona firstly calls for the dismissal of Mahatma Gandhi, one of the most renowned historical figures for his efforts in India and his encouragement of non-violent protests which was adopted by many other fighters for equal rights including Martin Luther King Jr and also making it clear that he is not directly desecrating Christianity but other religions as well, including Hinduism. Although it is quite surprising that Hughes mentions Gandhi in the same poem in which he criticizes the hypocrisy of others, he does not repudiate Gandhi but rather Gandhi’s philosophy of peaceful protests.
Hughes can be seen calling for more action from the African-American community but critics may also view this as an incitement of violence and renunciation of peaceful protests. In addition, Hughes asks Christ to also take ‘Saint Pope Pius’ who he regards as one of the people who have misused religion for his own personal financial gain, ‘Saint Aimee McPherson, the Evangelist, founder, and head of the Church of the Four-Square Gospel who encouraged the members of her temple to picket the hotel, in which Hughes was scheduled to deliver a talk on Negro folk songs and play the song ‘God Bless America”.
The mention of ‘Big Black Saint Becton’ is quite significant as it shows that Hughes does not only castigate the whites, like he does in most of his poems, but African-Americans who misuse religion as well. George Wilson Becton was the leader of the Harlem- based sect called the World’s Gospel Feast. He was a very wealthy man who lived in a profligate apartment and wore fine clothes. Upon being questioned on his wealth he cheekily asserted that “If Jesus were alive, he would dress like me”. Hughes highly criticized Becton, stating “Dr. Becton was a charlatan if there ever was one, but he filled the huge church—because he gave a good show”.
Finally, Hughes ends the poem by stating that the world is mine from now on-And nobody’s gonna sell ME to a king, or a general, or a millionaire. Literally signifying that the world should now favour a more communistic approach and re-emphasizing that the misuse of Christianity (in terms of selling it to the rich) shall no longer transpire due to communism Although in his poem, Hughes portrays his frustration of the misuse of religion and approval of communism in a controversial and misleading manner that could be misinterpreted as a refutation of Christianity, he asserted that 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 have never been a member of the Communist party. … Would that Christ came back to save us all. We do not know how to save ourselves.