1 WRTG 150H 15 February 2013 The Nature of “Salvation” Historical Context The name Langston Hughes is synonymous today with the Harlem Renaissance. This period of African-American cultural flowering arrived in the mid-1920s and lasted officially until the stock market crash in 1929, but in its short span there was a reinvention of Black identity and racial consciousness in the United States and abroad. Hughes spoke for the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, although being only 24 years old during the period’s zenith— his summary of the literary movement was that black artists’ intentions were to express and create freely, regardless of what the black public or white public thought (Rampersad). Hughes sought to shed African-American’s internalized racism; often, for him, that meant turning over the dirt of his past (the pains of family, the stress of religion, his father’s disdain for his own race) in order to express his dissatisfaction. Hughes conquered the loneliness of his Kansas childhood with his discovery of books, and with burgeoning intellect he gradually pushed away formal religion in favor of humanism (Berry 9). His atypical idea that religion was unnecessary in the uplift of African-Americans was sourced in his short story “Salvation”, where he describes a personal episode in a southern revival of his youth. Critical Analysis Langston Hughes’ “Salvation”, has a lot of bite. The short story is recorded in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander, where Hughes wields only fifteen small paragraphs in his description of the religious trauma and subsequent disenchantment that came from this revival. His story is full of suspended belief, tension, and irony, and, as related in a twelve-year-old’s
2 plain voice, it cuts swiftly to the questions of religious belief and doubt that lie in the heart of the reader. Hughes’ story is significant because of the way he defends his reactions as legitimate. First, the irony of his loss of faith as a result of his “salvation” is connected to the disparity between the feelings the older generation told him to expect, and those actually fostered by the environment of the revival. And second, Langston’s childlike patience creates a mood of honesty, which makes his eventual disappointment all the more poignant and frustrating to the audience. The southern revival, an environment of intense jockeying between belief and unbelief, commits in its intense religious fervor an ironic robbery of Langston’s search for salvation. The point of the revival is to bring the unbeliever to Jesus. The belief/unbelief contrast is laid out in the preacher’s “wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell” followed by “a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb…left out in the cold” (Hughes 280). These polarizing metaphors make it obvious to young Langston, as well as the reader, which choice is the “right choice” to make. But the congregation’s fervor and preacher’s lofty words yield disconnect when compared to the emotions of the children; the young ones expect, or at least Hughes expects, to see the saving light of Jesus illuminate them in full force so they know they’ve been saved. Hughes purposefully doesn’t say what any other children feel (besides the boy Westley, who is simply “tired o’ sitting [there]”) before they run up to the altar to be saved (Hughes 280). The implication is that the other children, more sensitive to the pressure of the congregation, simply run up to the altar to be made comfortable again, while Hughes implies by his “waiting serenely” that he wanted the truth. Young Langston becomes a bit of a hero, in that he truly wants to experience the light of salvation, even if he must wait for it against the tension of the flock. The
3 irony is that in the end, Langston, as the real seeker of salvation, is the only one who doesn’t really receive its benefits. He is left with a loss of faith that not even his family can understand. This loss of faith is tied to another reason “Salvation” is significant: it is a rare example of logic that appeals to your emotions, pathos out of logos. Langston is a child, and Hughes captures the unique way that children reason very deliberately to make the disappointing end feel justified. In the beginning, the young Hughes is accepting and without guile, for “it seemed to [him] [the church] ought to know” (Hughes 280). Hughes characterizes his young self as lacking in any ulterior motives as he goes to sit on the mourner’s bench and receive Jesus. He is honest as he waits and waits, expecting that, since he was told he would see the light, the light will surely come. The emotional appeal is subtle, but effective; as the tension around Langston rises, the reader’s empathy for his awkward and desperate situation also grows, until the pivotal point when it becomes too much… and Langston stands. At this climax, a shift occurs in Hughes’ character that is rich in irony and poignancy. The congregation goes from desperate pleading to “waves of rejoicing,” at the precise moment when Langston goes from honesty to lying, from genuine religious hope to a half-hearted resignation (Hughes 281). The foil of the congregation triumphs over the hero Langston as his initial fortitude is bent beneath the disappointment of “salvation”. Greater than that, even, is the frustration at the fact that there were good intentions on both sides—a tragedy of misunderstanding that is very recognizable to the audience. The question left, the one that makes “Salvation” a personal experience for the reader, is to determine the legitimacy of Hughes’ disillusionment. Is it to be blamed on the revival for its feverish pressure, or on the adults for giving Langston Hughes the wrong idea of what salvation is like, or on Jesus for not coming? Perhaps it is Hughes fault for expecting too much; but the determination of the fault is really what the significance of “Salvation” boils down to. It
4 challenges the individual to define his or her belief about what salvation and worship really mean. Personal Response When I was young and told that the Spirit would speak to me, I believed that it would be like hearing a radio in another room through a wall, quiet because it was muffled but truly audible sound that I could hear better if I moved closer. And for eight years of my life I felt like I was the only one in church who hadn’t tuned in to the frequency. But Sunday was only one day in the whole week, so I was content to be discontent for three hours. I realized, only two years ago, that I had been hearing this voice in my own head, soft yes, but not quite the way it had been described to me. I realized the Spirit was personally beyond quantification. In this light, my first reading of “Salvation” left me surprised, mostly at my very personal connection to a Black humanist poet from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. The honesty struck me deeply. I’ve often wondered why people don’t say they were ever disappointed in their expectations of religion as a child; in the past, that internal concern was usually followed by the thought that maybe I was the only one… Thus Hughes proved otherwise. His words seemed to represent a thought of my own mind that I had left unexpressed. When I researched Langston Hughes’ background to understand “Salvation”, I discovered he was a humanist and immediately felt an uneasy distrust creep in. His disillusionment smelled like a threat to my carefully constructed faith. But then it dawned on me that my idea of “salvation” is much harder to rupture in a single event, unlike Hughes’ externally-founded revival experience. Hughes’ real message to me is not to deny faith, but to be wary of blind trust; not necessarily to reject salvation, but to be honest with myself in the quest for it.
5 Works Cited Berry, Faith. Langston Hughes - Before and Beyond Harlem. New York: Citadel, 1992. Print. Hughes, Langston. "Salvation." Readings for Intensive Writers. 6th ed. Provo: BYU Academic, 2012. 280-81. Print. Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. Print. 1902-1941, I, Too, Sing America.