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You Are Equal Here: Challenging Wisdom from Langston Hughes



Last month, I started reading The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, the activist, novelist, and playwright, who the Philadelphia Inquirer calls “a powerful interpreter of the American experience,” whose poems are “rooted in the Black experience.” Here is one of his poems called, “My People”:


The night is beautiful,

So the faces of my people.


The stars are beautiful,

So the eyes of my people.


Beautiful, also, is the sun.

Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.


I’m sharing Hughes’ poem because during this Black History Month it has me thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. once said to a congregation of Black people: “I come here tonight to plead with you. Believe in yourself and believe that you are somebody…Be proud of your heritage. We don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Somebody told a lie one day. They couched it in language. They made everything Black ugly and evil. Look in your dictionaries and see the synonyms of the word ‘Black.’ It’s always something degrading and low and sinister. Look at the word ‘White.’ It’s always something pure, high, and clean. Well, I want to get the language right tonight…so that everyone here will cry out: ‘Yes, I’m Black, I’m proud of it. I’m Black and I’m beautiful.’”


Hughes’ poem has me thinking about how our white-centric culture—the result of centuries of trauma firmly embedded in Black and white bodies informing how they interact with and respond to one another (see Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies)—causes Black men to be criminalized and Black women to be sexualized at the expense of them being humanized.


Hughes’ poem has me thinking about Jesus being baptized in the Jordan River, about how his ancestry reminds us that the Palestinian Jew from Nazareth had far more melanin in his skin than most stained glass depictions of him suggest, and about how his brown wet skin must have glistened in the sun when the skies opened and God spoke to Their son’s soul with radiant energy for all to hear, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased.”


There is a saying in the United Church of Christ that we often speak at the start of worship services at Friends Congregational Church: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” It’s an articulated gesture to our guests affirming their personhood, but also a spoken reminder for all of us that we are not a homogenous people, that we come from different backgrounds and various strands of the man-made construct of race, and that we are called as people of faith, striving to follow the baptized Jesus into a kin-dom of inclusive equality, to see and celebrate one another as God’s beautiful beloved—faces, eyes, souls and all.


I recently heard an adage to those words of welcome offered at another UCC church: “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here, and you are equal here.” Welcoming one another in witness to God’s love is joyful. Affirming one another in witness to Jesus’ belovedness is good. Working to assure one another’s equality, especially for our Black and Brown neighbors alongside whom we reside in a still white-centric culture, is challenging. But they are all urgently necessary for those who pray that God’s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.


So, here is another of Hughes’ poems written sometime between 1921 and 1930. I share it because it is affirming as well as challenging. But to the extent that it is challenging, we would do well to ask ourselves why.


“The White Ones”


I do not hate you,

For your faces are beautiful, too.

I do not hate you,

Your faces are whirling lights of loveliness and splendor, too.

Yet why do you torture me,

O, white strong ones,

Why do you torture me?

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