Langston Hughes | Critical Essay by Mary Beth Culp

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of Langston Hughes.
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Critical Essay by Mary Beth Culp

SOURCE: "Religion in the Poetry of Langston Hughes," in Phylon, Vol. 48, No. 3, pp. 240-45.

In the following essay, Culp asserts that Hughes's poetry emphasizes the diverse role that religion plays in the African- American community.

Langston Hughes lived basically in terms of the external world and in unison with it, making himself one with his people and refusing to stand apart as an individual. His poetry reflects collective states of mind as if they were his own, merging the poet's personality with his racial group. He as sumes various personae—sometimes he is the spirit of his race, at other times he is a spittoon polisher, a black mother, a prostitute, a black man without job or money—but there is a commonality among the various experiences presented in his poems which gives them a kind of consistent persona.

As a folklorist Hughes sought to capture the essence of every aspect of black culture, including its religion. Religious feeling is always interdependent with racial feeling in his poetry. He views religion in the larger context of black culture, presenting it variously as a source of strength for the oppressed, an opiate of the people, the religion of slavery, and an obstacle to emancipation. When asked in an interview about his own religious views, Hughes responded:

I grew up in a not very religious family, but I had a foster aunt who saw that I went to church and Sunday School … and I was very much moved, always, by the, shall I say, the rhythms of the Negro church … of the spirituals … of those wonderful old-time sermons…. There's great beauty in the mysticism of much religious writing, and great help there—but I also think that we live in a world … of solid earth and vegetables and a need for jobs and a need for housing …

In his autobiography The Big Sea, Hughes describes his "conversion" at the age of thirteen. It happened on a hot night during a revival meeting at his aunt's church in Lawrence, Kansas. Hughes and another boy were waiting alone on the mourner's bench to see the light of Jesus, while "the building rocked with prayer and song." Finally the other boy whispered to Langston, "God damn! I'm tired o'sitting here. Let's get up and be saved," and he went forward. Langston waited in vain to see Jesus, but finally, amid the praying and sobbing and singing of the congregation he, too, went forward, "to save further trouble." Hughes concludes his description of this incident as follows:

That night, for the last time in my life, but one … I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn't stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me…. She … told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn't bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn't seen Jesus, and that now I didn't believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn't come to help me.

In the only poem in which Hughes speaks of religion in his own voice and not that of a persona of his people, he states:

    In an envelope marked:
    God addressed me a letter.
    In an envelope marked:
    I have given my answer.

In the remainder of his more than sixty poems containing religious references, Hughes captures the essence of religious feeling in the black culture through his use of language, rhythm, and form. The simplest of these is a group of six lyrics and songs composed between 1926 and 1964, celebrating the story of the Christ Child. Another group, including "Judgment Day" (1927); "Prayer Meeting" (1923); "Sinner" (1927) and "Acceptance" (1957) reflect the simple faith of blacks in settings reminiscent of Hughes's childhood experiences. "Judgment Day" dramatizes the imagination of a simple black person whose soul has gone "flyin' to de stars and moon / A shoutin' God I's comin' soon!"

Among Hughes's poems which suggest that religion has been valuable to black people in toughening a certain life force within, one of the most popular is "The Negro Mother" (1931). The archetypal speaker says:

I am the one who labored as a slave, Beaten and mistreated for the work that I gave

Three hundred years in the deepest South: But God put a song and a prayer in my mouth. God put a dream like steel in my soul.

Here the religion of the slavemasters has become resolution in the mind of the slaves.

Other of Hughes's poems with religious references are predominantly celebrations of life, short though it may be. These include "Sylvester's Dying Bed" (1931); "Saturday Night" (1926); "Fire" (1927); and "Sunday by the Combination" (1951), all concerning good-timing sinners who lived robustly until "the Lawd put out the light." In "Madam and the Number Writer" (1943) Hughes's well-known character Madame Alberta K. Johnson whimsically swears off playing the numbers in Harlem in favor of heaven's "golden streets / Where the number not only / Comes out—but repeats!" In "Tambourines" (1959) the speaker celebrates life with "A gospel shout / And a gospel song: / Life is short / But God is long!"

The influence of jazz is seen in many of these poems. There is a similarity between religious exaltation and the exaltation of human nature that finds an outlet in jazz. Wagner has pointed out that "in both establishments [church and dance hall] the shouts and rhythms are the same and human beings find means of release and forgetfulness, whether profane or sacred."

Perhaps the most powerful of Hughes's poems with a religious reference, however, are those which use Christ as a central figure. In the poetry of Hughes, as well as other black poets, Christ is sometimes white, symbolizing the oppressors and acting as their accomplice; at other times he is black, the image and friend of the lynched Negro, and one who suffers with him. With the black-white Christ symbol black poets have represented the contradictory elements of the religion of whites which was passed on to the slaves.

In the original version of "A New Song" (1932) the poet expresses regret that the Negro has never really shared in the Christian community; he denies that Christ's sacrifice took place on behalf of black people, and asserts that the blacks must redeem themselves.

     Bitter was the day
     When …
     … only in the sorrow songs
     Relief was found—
     Yet no relief,
     But merely humble life and silent death
     Eased by a Name
     That hypnotized the pain away—
     O, precious Name of Jesus in that day!
     That day is past.
     I know full well now
     Jesus could not die for me—
     That only my own hands,
     Dark as the earth,
     Can make my earth-dark body free.

"Goodbye, Christ!" (1933) spurns the Christ of white supremacy and reflects an attraction to Communist ideology, although Hughes later declared he had never shared the views expressed in this 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—
     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

As a result of this poem the poet was barred from speaking at a Los Angeles YMCA in 1935, was picketed by the America First Party while speaking at Wayne State University in 1942, and fifteen years later was still explaining that the poem was an "ironic protest against racketeering in the churches."

In other poems, Christ is seen as the archetype of suffering blacks. A comparison between the fate of Jesus and the revilement of black people appears in Hughes's poetry both early and late. In "Ma Lord" (1927) an anthropomorphic Christ is pictured. The second stanza reads:

     Ma Lord knowed what it was to work
     He knowed how to pray
     Ma Lord's life was trouble, too
     Trouble ever day.

The fusion of Christ and black people has a long tradition, reinforced by the influence of black ministers who drew comparisons between Christ's martyrdom and the debasement of black people. In his short story "Big Meeting" Hughes describes a typical sermon in which this identification is apparent. The sermon on the crucifixion is divided into three parts. In the first, the preacher talks about the power of the lowly, represented by Christ; then about the ability of a man to stand alone like Jesus, who told his weakening disciples to "sleep on." The congregation chants, "sleep on, sleep on." The second part of the sermon turns to images of violence. The minister recalls that Jesus "saw the garden alive with men carrying lanterns and swords and staves, and the mob was everywhere." Other images of violence which the preacher supplies are handcuffs, prisoner, chains, trail, lies. Then the minister closes the gap between Christ and the congregation. The picture of the crucified Jesus is finished:

     Mob cussin' and hootin' my Jesus! Umn!
     The spit of the mob in His face! Umn!
     His body hangin' on the cross! Umn!
     That's what they did to my Jesus!
     They stoned Him first, they stoned Him!
     Called Him everything but a child of God.
     Then they lynched him on the cross.

The word mob begins the Negro identification with Christ; the word lynched seals it. The sermon is almost a poem itself. In it one can see the "rhythms of the Negro church" to which Hughes referred in the interview cited.

The poem which is the strongest statement of this theme is "Christ in Alabama" (1931).

    Christ is a nigger,
    Beaten and black
    Oh, bare your back!
    Mary is His mother:
    Mammy of the South,
    Silence your mouth.
    God is His father:
    White Master above
    Grant Him your love.
    Most holy bastard
    Of the bleeding mouth,
                        Nigger Christ
                        On the cross
                        Of the South.

Hughes's first reading of the poem at the University of North Carolina on November 21, 1931, caused threats of violence from whites. The poem itself was written to protest violence against blacks which was weighing heavily on Hughes's mind. While on his reading tour of the South, he had learned that a recent graduate of Hampton Institute had been beaten to death by an Alabama mob for parking his car in a white parking lot. In the same week he learned of the death of Juliette Derricotte of Fisk University, who had been involved in an automobile accident in Georgia and had been refused treatment in a white hospital. In addition, the Scottsboro case had affected Hughes deeply. Nine Negro youths were in Kilby prison in Alabama, accused of raping two white prostitutes in a coal car traveling through the state. In his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, Hughes describes these events and their repercussions in his typical low-key, wry manner. He relates the reaction of a local politician in Chapel Hill to the poem: "It's bad enough to call Christ a bastard … but to call Him a nigger—that's too much!" In an article in the Atlanta World of December 18, 1931, Hughes said of the poem:

Anything which makes people think of existing evil conditions is worthwhile. Sometimes in order to attract attention somebody must embody these ideas in sensational forms. I meant my poem to be a protest against the domination of all stronger peoples over weaker ones.

The word protest may have diminished the artistic merit of the poem in the eyes of many. Although Jean Wagner considers it "shocking rather than profound," James Emanuel thinks it noteworthy for the economy of its phrasing and its acrostic flair.

A less shocking poem using the crucifixion theme is "The Ballad of Mary's Son" (1954), which merges the persons of "Mary's boy," a young black man lynched during the Passover, and Christ, "Mary's son," in a shared spiritual tragedy. The first two stanzas establish the relationship:

     It was in the Spring
     The Passover had come.
     There was feasting in the streets and joy.
     But an awful thing
     Happened in the Spring—
     Men who knew not what they did
     Killed Mary's Boy.
     He was Mary's Son,
     And the Son of God was He—
     Sent to bring the whole world joy.
     There were some who could not hear,
     And some were filled with fear—
     So they built a cross
     For Mary's Boy.

Perhaps Hughes's finest poem using the crucifixion theme is "Song for a Dark Girl," written in 1927.

     Way Down South in Dixie
      (Break the heart of me)
     They hung my black young lover
      To a cross roads tree.
     Way Down South in Dixie
      (Bruised body high in air)
     I asked the white Lord Jesus
      What was the use of prayer.
     Way Down South in Dixie
      (Break the Heart of me)
     Love is a naked shadow
      On a gnarled and naked tree.

In this poem, protest has given way to grief. The irony of the gay Dixieland tune juxtaposed on the heartbreaking refrain gives the poem impact, as does its simple imagery and symbolism. In the first stanza the black young lover is the Christ figure, hung to a cross roads (divided for emphasis) tree. In the second stanza the speaker addresses the white Christ, expressing the frustration of the black religious experience in America. In the third stanza the two Christ figures, representing love, are fused into "a naked shadow / On a gnarled and naked tree."

In these poems, as in all his works, Langston Hughes's primary purpose was to reveal the folk expression of his people in all its diversity. He shows the folk inside and outside the church, happy and sad, in states of grace and of sin. Although he wrote with emotional strength of the oppression of his people, he was primarily a folklorist who created his art out of the stuff of common black experience. Arna Bontemps has rightly called him a minstrel and a troubadour in the classic sense.

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This section contains 2,282 words
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