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Langston Hughes' Essay, "Salvation"

Expository critical essays in literary, political, historical, philosophical, and spiritual topics remain part of my literary toolkit.

Langston Hughes

Introduction

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' insightful 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 fail to 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!" While auntie had come to understand these words through faith, she remained ignorant that the young Langston would need these words interpreted so that he could, at least, begin to understand them.

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.

Christian Values

Langston suffered because he lied, which demonstrates that he possessed at least that one good Christian value as one 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. Thus, Langston not only loses his faith for a time, but also for his whole life he remained an atheist.

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.

Dramatization of Hughes' "Salvation"

Questions & Answers

Question: What is Langton Hughes' visual description in "Salvation"?

Answer: Two examples of visual description are the following: "old women with jet-black faces and braided hair and men with work-gnarled hands" and "who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying."

This essay contains many more examples of auditory description than visual. For example, "for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting," "The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell," and "The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices," "the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing," and "When things quieted down, in a hushed silence, punctuated by a few ecstatic 'Amens,' all the new young lambs were blessed in the name of God. Then joyous singing filled the room."

Question: What is the motive of the narrator in Langston Hughes' essay, "Salvation"?

Answer: His only motivation is to recount his experience of how he lost his faith.

Question: In Langston Hughes' essay, "Salvation," who is speaking?

Answer: Langston Hughes' essay, "Salvation," comprises a chapter in "The Big Sea," one of Langston Hughes' autobiographies; thus Langston Hughes is speaking.

Question: What would cause a little boy to say, "God damn!" in church in Langston Hughes' essay "Salvation"?

Answer: Westly grew tired of just sitting on that hard bench waiting.

Question: Why is the Westley character important to the story "Salvation" by Langston Hughes?

Answer: Westley's character provides a moral contrast to Langston's character.

Question: How does Langston Hughes' "Salvation" weave his adult perspectives on religion as he recounts this memory?

Answer: With statements such as, " . . . now I didn't believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn't come to help me."

Question: What person is Langston Hughe's essay written in? First, second or third?

Answer: Written in first person, Langston Hughes' "Salvation" is an essay in which he reveals how he lost his faith as child. This piece is not a poem.

Question: Why does Langston cry that night?

Answer: That night Langston cries because he lied and deceived everybody; this 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.

Question: In Langston Hughes' "Salvation," what is the relationship between the narrator and Aunt Reed?

Answer: Langston Hughes is Auntie Reed's nephew.

Question: Who is the intended audience of Langston Hughes' "Salvation"?

Answer: "Salvation" comprises a chapter in The Big Sea, one of Langston Hughes' autobiographies; thus, it is intended for a general audience.

Question: Why does Langston Hughes expect to be saved at the revival meeting as recounted in his essay "Salvation"?

Answer: Because Auntie Reed had led him to expect that.

Question: Why did Langston Hughes become an atheist?

Answer: 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!" While auntie had come to understand these words through faith, she remained ignorant that the young Langston would need these words interpreted so that he could, at least, begin to understand them.

Question: Was Langston Hughes a Christian?

Answer: No, Langston Hughes was an atheist.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes