He said that very clearly, he hated his father—for reasons that he went on to explain.
I argue in the book that Langston Hughes wrote as much about religion as he did about any other topic if we broaden our understanding of what religion actually is. Because what Hughes began to offer me in my exploration was this much more broad and expansive way to think about what constitutes religious writing.
His poems, his plays, and his social commentary became available to me for religious analysis.
Wallace Best: This book in many ways is born from that research that I did in Chicago years ago, when I was working on as a dissertation, deep into the archives and into the issues of movement and migration and the way in which that transforms African American religious practices in Chicago and beyond. His name would come up in church documents, the papers of ministers and church workers. I found him in unexpected places in my research on Chicago and that intrigued me.
My understanding of Langston Hughes was that he would be un-churched and unconcerned about churches and unconcerned about religion.
I was thinking: Why would this atheist, who as one of his biographers would say was “secular to the bone,” show up in the documents on Harlem and Chicago’s world of religion and churches?
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He was there, from what I could tell, as an active participant.WB: I think I coined a term here when I called it a “historical analysis of religious literature” or “religious and historical analysis of literature.” I knew from the start that I was writing in between fields.The reception of the book and how people find their way to it has been curious.Best, who argues in his latest book that the religious dimensions of Hughes’s work have too often been dismissed or ignored.In , Best mines Hughes’s canon of poems, plays, novels, and commentary, exploring the ways in which the writer was a “thinker about religion,” even if he was not religious himself.WB: Hughes talked about his life this way: He said there were three events in his life that were absolutely foundational, and these events shaped his thinking about love, about life, about relationships, and most particularly, I think, about religion.One of those events was when he discovered as a young teenager that he hated his father.JS: One of the phrases you gravitate to is this idea of Hughes not necessarily as religious but as a “thinker about religion.” You begin with his failed salvation experience.Tell me more about his failed salvation experience and how that story definitively shapes his thinking.But even on the back of the book, it’s designated as in the field of literature. The reason I wanted to characterize it as religion is because in some ways that was my target.I had fought for it to be in the field of history and religion, but I think the editors, in the end, understood that the way to get the most people to this book was by classifying it as literature. Because really what I wanted to do was say to my scholarly religious folks, “Look, might we sit down and think about new ways to do what we do? I wanted to revive a type of conversation about the usefulness of African American literature for religious analysis. I wanted to spread that net out widely and to include the voices of those who spoke not just from the position of belief.