Written by Jaylen Thomas
Analyzing a piece of literature such as “Salvation” by Langston Hughes in modern society is important. Oftentimes, we ignore the culture of condemnation that is prevalent in the Church, but Hughes’ essay dares us to do the unthinkable: question the Church. Questioning the teachings of the Church, which have played a major role in the process of socialization in our society, can be seen as troublesome. We are inching toward more diversity and are gradually becoming more inclusive of people of varying identities. Because the Church is committed to its archaic beliefs, people who stand in opposition have caused ‘controversy’. Amongst these controversial issues is the recent Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the U.S Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriage. This decision was important for many reasons. In the Christian faith, homosexuality is often viewed as a sin, which led members of congregations around the U.S. to protest this legislation. Churches used language that strongly condemned the Supreme Court’s decision and the LGBTQ community. This language does damage to those who are listening, especially children. “Salvation” speaks to how impressionable children are and how much they internalize our words. In the essay, Langston—this referencing a young Hughes as the narrator of the essay, not the older “Hughes” as the author—struggles internally with feeling that he does not amount to God’s expectations for him. Langston came to understand these expectations through what he has seen, heard, and been taught throughout his childhood. The problem with this is that what we are taught is right and wrong could clash with our own personal experiences. It is interesting to align the context of “Salvation” with the ideologies around sexuality and the socialization of it; the perception of which is influenced mostly by religion.
So much of how our society is socialized, especially the black community, is done through religion. Christianity often determines what it means to be both man and woman and what is expected of either gender in order to achieve the ultimate goal: salvation. Bobby Griffith was one of the many victims of suicide in the LGBTQ community. His life story was retold in Prayers for Bobby, an award-winning book by Leroy Aarons, and reenacted in a television movie by the same name. One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when the character version of Mary Griffith, Bobby’s mother, gives a speech where she abandons many of the ideals that led to her son’s suicide. During the course of the speech, she mentions the silence of children battling with their sexuality:
There are children like Bobby sitting in our congregations. Unknown to you, they will be listening to your ‘Amens’ as they silently cry out to God in their hearts. Their cries will go unnoticed for they cannot be heard above your ‘Amens’. Your fear and ignorance of the word ‘gay’ will soon silence their cries. Before you echo ‘Amen’ in your home or place of worship, think and remember…a child is listening. (Prayers for Bobby)
Though Hughes is not overtly battling with his sexuality in his essay, like these children in congregations around the world, he is listening to the echoes of “amen” validating something that he does not fully comprehend but is expected to support. Like Langston in the essay and Bobby in the movie, these children will grow to hate themselves, losing faith in God, and attempting to change themselves to fit into a mold that was not created with people like them in mind. Langston found himself no longer believing in a God towards the end of this narrative, writing: “But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn’t come to help me.” Because he did not have the experience that was expected, he had lost his faith. Salvation, that ultimate goal, was no longer an option for him.
Like Hughes and Bobby, I grew up in a family with strong connections to the Church. I, too, was exposed to standards that I didn’t agree with, but was expected to uphold. Throughout my adolescence, I struggled with my identity. These expectations did not help me become a better person, they instead caused me to loathe who I was. I was Langston, sitting on the pew of the church before people whom I looked up to and before God. I’d fallen short of God’s expectations for me. I had a clear understanding of what salvation consisted of, but because of the question of my sexuality, I felt that I did not necessarily qualify. I continued throughout life with a slight disconnect from the Church for this reason. But what was preached to me was a God of love, so I could not understand why a God who loved me would allow me to burn in hell for who I was.
When comparing Hughes’ essay with the movie, in a sense, we are allowed into the mind of a child battling with what God thinks of him based on how others interpret those thoughts. Hughes writes: “Now it was really getting late. I began to be ashamed of myself, holding everything up so long. I began to wonder what God thought about Westley, who was sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered leg and grinning down at me.” Langston realizes that Westley had not seen God and was caught between the fear of what God would think of him, Langston, if he lied and the fear of God never coming to him to begin with. Thus, by adults in the church instilling their own views of what God “thinks,” there are children who are sitting in congregations lying not only to the church about who they are, but to themselves in an effort to escape the question of their identity. There becomes established in their heart a fear of what God thinks of them.
To critically analyze “Salvation,” readers must acknowledge the emotion that is exuded from this essay. I saw myself in Langston. I realized that there are other children’s cries being silenced by those who lack understanding of those of us who identify as homosexual. Langston mentions how he had to lie in an effort to appear as if he had lived up to these expectations, noting that “God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.” This particular line made me wonder how many members, children and adults, in church congregations come to church as if they have their entire lives together, but have similarly and silently “save[d] further trouble.” For years I put on my salvation as if it were a robe to attend church; hoping to appear deserving of redemption, but feeling that I was too ‘broken’ within. The entire idea of salvation and the notion that a person must fit a particular mold in order to achieve it makes us question ourselves. We begin to juxtapose who we are with who we are told we should be and attempt to move towards that being instead of being true to self. The problem with this, at least for Bobby and me, is that homosexuality is not something that is chosen. Bobby and I, like many others, did not make a conscious decision to have an attraction to the same sex. It was not a choice to defy what Christians have depicted to be God’s will and essentially be denied salvation, thus being destined for hell.
Church has often been described to me as a hospital for the broken, but too often I see people leave it more broken than they’d come. Langston Hughes does an extraordinary job of allowing us into the mind of an adolescent battling with what is taught to him versus what he feels. He does not see a light, and God does not come to him as expected. Langston is symbolic of children everywhere, many of whom have conformed to, perhaps well-intentioned but nonetheless misguided, expectations. These expectations can result in the homophobia that is exuded from the Church and into the minds of the children who are listening. Ultimately, the goal of church is not for children to aim to “save further trouble” by subverting their own relationship with God and adopting a facade. I was that child. My face clasped in my hands and my back against the bathroom door. I was ready to compromise my existence. My search for peace consequently left me in pieces.