|In the Guise of Telling the Truth|
|Essays and Memoirs|
(Referential Magazine September 23, 2015)
In Langston Hughes’ little story, “Salvation,” from his autobiography, The Big Sea, he tells us that “going on thirteen” he was saved from sin—saved, “but not really.” At a special children’s meeting in the church, charged with the expectation that he would “see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul,” Langston waits while the minister asks the “little lambs” to come forward. Many do; a few hesitate. Most go to the altar. And there, by their voluntary presence, they are saved. But not Hughes and another boy, Westley. Neither budges; Langston is not feeling it. But, it’s hot, and the hymns keep insinuating, and the preacher keeps intoning, and the flock keeps expecting, until Westley finally capitulates: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved,” he says to Langston, and so Westly goes to the front of the church. And he is saved. Now, from every corner, the hanky-waving faithful and Langston’s family besiege him, the last straggler, to get up: they pray for him, “in a mighty wail of moans and voices.” And, though he thinks he wants to receive the Lord, nothing happens. He waits again. But still he can’t see Jesus. Seeing Westly, happily swinging his legs up front, Langston muses, “God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple.”
So, at last, Langston gets up and saunters to the front of the church. And he is saved. Voila! God and church propitiated. All the dominoes have fallen. That night, however, after the hurrahs of the family have settled and Langston is alone in bed, he cries. His aunt hears him and comes into his room. His tears, she says, are the Holy Ghost reminding him that he has seen Jesus. The everlasting has arrived in his life for good. But no, Langston thinks, his tears are his shame for lying: “I couldn’t bear to tell her,” he writes, “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.”
How simply wrought and religiously portentous this 1940 confession is. Several things are true. The initiation passed, the emotional purge exacted, Langston is saved in the eyes of the church members; he is saved by his conscience, the opposite of what his family treasures him for receiving; and he is saved by the querulous surprise of his self-disclosure. He knows that what they believe and what he believes—which each would swear to—are the same as they are different. Salvation and faked salvation—river and bank, sun and moon. Doesn’t this happen often whenever we are tapped to bow our heads in prayer for the dearly departed or to stand for the seventh-inning rendition of “God Bless America”? How many of us, caps in hand, embarrassed faces, dodgy hearts, relish little of what we’re supposed to and, instead, feel that the land-that-I-love or the deity-on-high fervor in the bowed head beside us is a public face we’re preternaturally unable to fake. The degree to which we hide the absence of belief is also the degree to which we hope such an absence might be acknowledged if not by them, then, at least, by us.
The story begins with church members meandering through the sleepy hymn, “The Ninety and Nine.” Despite the tune’s avowal that the lone stray sheep (little Langston), brought back to the fold, is the most blessed of the flock, another counter-certainty raises its head: there is no God except the God who isn’t there, a strangely satisfying hollow that awakens Langston’s conscience. Reverse salvation—that which is presumed to ground his life, the Weight of the Old Rugged Cross, he discovers he has no desire to lug. But that’s not the point. The point is, how does he, how do we live with ourselves if we protect others from knowing what we truly think?
How American to be in it and outside it. How American to pretend to be attached to the prevailing winds so that the pretending becomes the freedom. How odd that the writer confesses his strength as a failure, that which came, while young, with a cost. And how odd to have learned a kind of double speak that shielded those good gospel women who raised and loved him from his disbelief, women with whom he could never be, while young, his apostate self except in the guise of telling the truth—showing he was saved when he wasn’t and wouldn’t be. All this expresses itself in the tack of the artist whose sensibility the culture has already fitted him with because not only is the ambiguity there that day to guide little Langston through his community survival and into the honesty of his shame but that same ambiguity is also there the day he tells the truth whole by confessing to the lie.