Friday, June 25, 2010

The Night Langston Hughes Cried

Langston Hughes cried the night he got saved. Actually, Langston Hughes cried because he knew he was not.

A small section of his first autobiography, “The Big Sea” (1940) records what happened. He was twelve years old when he attended a revival at his aunt Reed's church. Days beforehand, Hughes' aunt told him about the meetings (especially the one special meeting that would be held just for the children) and what it was like to be saved.

“My aunt told me that when you were saved you saw a light, and something happened to you inside! And Jesus came into your life! And God was with you from then on! She said you could see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul. I believed her. I had heard a great many old people say the same thing and it seemed to me they ought to know.”

The night finally came, and Hughes was escorted to the front row, placed on the mourner's bench “with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus” and waited “for Jesus to come to me.”

The preacher preached and pleaded for the little lambs to come. The “little girls cried. And some jumped up and went to Jesus right away. But most of us just sat there.”

Hughes describes how many of the older people gathered around, praying for the children to “come to Jesus.” The children came reluctantly, slowly, and the night was getting on. Two children remained on the bench, and Hughes was one. His friend finally gave in (with a curse of frustration for sitting so long). The preacher and his aunt begged and cried for him to come. Hughes describes he was feeling ashamed for making the meeting go on so long, but he knew that his friends had not seen Jesus. He knew they lied and was wondering what God thought about people cursing and 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.” Hughes describes the rejoicing, shouting, and people leaping and dancing at his coming forward.

Hughes says that he only cried one other time in his life, and this night was the first. He buried his head under the quilts and sobbed. His aunt heard, convinced of his joy in being filled with the Holy Ghost and seeing Jesus. Hughes knew he had not, but had lied to everyone in the church. “I didn't believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn't come to help me.”

This is not an uncommon experience, and sadly, the results are rather complicated. Hughes, even at a such a young age, was able to discern a problem, but could not identify where the problem lay. At bottom, he knew that deception was at work—but where was the deception, and what was it specifically? Was he weeping because the theology of his aunt, his elders and the church had failed? Was he weeping because he did not have the feeling he was expecting? Did Jesus really fail to come?

One might read Hughes' experience and point to apparent conflict between the world of children and the world of adults, the rise and fall of childish expectation. There is an apparent problem with building within children grandeur of the fantastic, tearing it down, and replacing it with a greater fantasy called “religion” or something else. Social critic Audre Lourde (1934 – 1992) reflects on her childish confusion following her eighth-grade graduation, “when I was supposed to stop being a child . . . My sister graduated at the same time from high school. I don't know what she was supposed to stop being.” This perspective is too broad, missing the point altogether.

Another may interpret Hughes' experience ethically, arguing it is better to protect someone you love and maintain respect of those around you, even if one must lie to do it. There are two problems with this, the first being that even Hughes' conscience would not accept this. Without doubt he loved his aunt, and respected his elders (he took their opinion to heart), but he made his decision out of convenience, not out of love or respect: it was hot, the night was wearing on, and he feeling personally responsible for holding up the meeting. The second difficulty is that Hughes knew that lying was wrong in the eyes of God and others, regardless of the reason.

Perhaps Hughes wept of personal disillusionment with a person, idea or institution. This is more plausible when one factors in the theology and conscience. Culturally, the revival is more easily compared to a “coming of age” initiation, or to Lourde's graduation. He was told what to expect and nothing happened. Jesus was presented as a feeling, not a person; an experience. When the idea failed, the institution failed. When the institution failed, the relationship with his aunt failed—it would never be the same again. His friend did not have “the experience” but blasphemed and lied, then by “coming forward” convinced everyone through that one move that he met Jesus; but, he was part of the wider family now and could stare down at Hughes from the stage.

The reason Langston Hughes cried was conviction. Hughes lied and he knew it was wrong before God, regardless of what others thought.

Jesus was right there with him, under the covers, speaking to his soft, young heart, and Hughes did not see Him there or recognize His voice.

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