I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this….
These are some of my favorite opening lines in all literature. They were written by Langston Hughes for a story/essay called “Salvation.” (You can see that I’m jumping around a lot on this blog: countries, periods, genres…). Hughes goes on to describe his experience at a religious revival, where all the other young “lambs” see Jesus and are saved. He waits and waits, and then eventually he gets up too. The end of the piece follows: since I recently wrote about an opening it seems only fair to focus on an ending now.
That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old – I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. 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 anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.
Hughes has organized a deceptively simple essay around the term “saved.” What does it mean here? What does it mean to any boy “going on thirteen”? Starting with the first two sentences Hughes makes simple declarations and then complicates them with a “but.” The first one is explicitly a contradiction: saved, but not really saved. In the last paragraph, however, after the (non) revelation has (not) occurred things are more nuanced. The “but” sentences get longer and longer until we “see” what Hughes in fact *didn’t* see. That salvation is complicated and contradictory. It means different things to different people. This revelation was an induction into an adult world where truths are no longer concrete, where they do not necessarily appear before our eyes. This revelation is such a loss that he evokes crying four times in one paragraph and hides under the covers. But the paragraph, like the essay as a whole, is perfectly balanced: Jesus, who does not appear to Hughes, appears to us several times in these last lines. I use this essay with my NYU composition students and they can easily see how Hughes is not saved. But it’s hard for them to see that Hughes has been telling the truth all along: he, and we, are saved too.