Langston Hughes' Essay, "Salvation"

Updated on January 31, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Langston Hughes



Figurative language that is understood by adults must be interpreted for children who are meeting new metaphors for the first time. Children think quite literally most of the time. Adult ignorance of a child's literal mind can cause children to suffer loss of self-esteem, especially in matters of religious metaphor. Adults become so entangled in their metaphors that they do not realize that those metaphors need to be interpreted for children.

Langston Hughes' essay, "Salvation," comprises a chapter in The Big Sea, one of Langston Hughes' autobiographies. The ironic title foreshadows Hughes' loss of faith: " . . . now I didn't believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn't come to help me." Hughes' experience demonstrates how adults confuse children when they don't explain the religious metaphors.

Auntie Reed is primarily responsible for Langston's loss of faith. Instead of explaining to the young Langston that Jesus' words as they appear in The Sermon on the Mount serve as a useful guide for living one's life, she told him that "when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to your insides!"

Figurative Language and Children

This figurative description had no meaning for the boy, because he took these metaphors literally. He expected literally to see a light and literally to feel something happen to his insides. He believed his aunt's descriptions of salvation because he had heard "a great many old people say the same thing."

During the last meeting of the revival when the children were to be saved, Langston gave up believing in Jesus because he saw no light and did not feel Jesus had done something to his insides.

As he sat on the mourners' bench with another young sinner named Westley, Langston felt guilty as the adults encouraged him to come and be saved. His confusion magnified when Westley finally got up and was "saved."

God Damn! No Light

Langston knew Westley had not experienced Jesus. So when Langston finally stood up to be saved, he lost his faith because he knew the act was a lie. He had not seen a light and had not felt something happen to him inside. Westley had lied too and even said, "God damn" and didn't seem to be suffering for sins.

That night when Langston cries because he lied and deceived everybody, he shows that he is a good person. He didn't want to disappoint the adults. He knows he lied because he pretended to accept that metaphor when he did not even understand it.

A Good Christian

Langston suffered because he lied, which demonstrates that he was a good Christian, who accepts the commandment against lying. But as a child, the young Langston does not understand his own goodness.

Auntie Reed is lost in the metaphor and completely misreads Langston's feelings. When she hears him crying, she explains to her husband that Langston experienced the Holy Ghost and saw Jesus.

Auntie Reed's ignorance of Langston's literal mind caused the child to suffer a loss of self-esteem, as well as his faith in a religion. His aunt had become so ensconced in the religious metaphors and could not imagine that those metaphors needed to be interpreted for her young charge.

Interpreting the Metaphors

If Hughes' aunt had encouraged the young lad to understand that loving other people and being loved in return is like having a light in your life, the twelve-year-old Langston would have accepted that as "seeing a light," and that would have given him room to grow in faith.

If Auntie Reed had explained to him that having other people respond warmly to his good deeds is like having Jesus in his life, he would have also understood.

The uninterpreted metaphors of "light" and "seeing Jesus" caused doubt and confusion to the young lad, who then underwent a loss of faith in the existence of Christ as well as a loss of trust in his own good nature.

Reading of Hughes' "Salvation"

Questions & Answers

    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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