Questioning Salvation with Langston Hughes

I really enjoyed Hughes, similar to O’Connor! After reading Seven People Dancing, I was confused. It’s the normal state I live in when it comes to nuanced social interactions, and the primary reason I’m an introvert. I am also like the uranium he closes the story with, I can kill a party with my questions and social confusion… so here goes…

After poking around the web to help me understand the party and Langston’s point, which apparently many don’t get, but one reviewer on Goodreads commented that “When seven people are dancing, that means one person is dancing alone…” That triggered something for me, and I’m going to take a stab at what Hughes was wrestling with. 

Like my roomate pointed out yesterday with O’Connor, the names might have something to do with it. Only Marcel the gay host, Joan the pretty, singular white person in the room, and Claude her handsome date  have names. The others are more and more deeply shadowed… one couple with a handsome, tall, dark mand and a tea-colored woman who didn’t like him much, and another couple of whom Hughes writes:

The other couple was just there. Had you been there yourself, you would not have paid them much attention. Some people are like that, like chairs in a room, taken for granted but not noticed, except when one wants to sit down. Nobody wanted anything from the other couple, because they had nothing to give. 

The practice at this party was that when the records changed off the stack, someone bought a round of drinks. Marcel had bought a round after the handsome dark man of the unloving couple had bought two rounds. After those drinks and more dancing, the energy is high. Even the reserved, single, and gay host Marcel is now pouring out energy into the room at 2 a.m. when noise is normally rare, as Hughes writes;  “And why did Marcel’s laughter stop being a ground cloth and start bouncing like a rubber ball, too, and a very hard one at that?”

The record stack stops, and then it’s time for someone to buy another round. The tall dark fellow says that he doesn’t have enough money to his date, but Joan says “Oh, but I do.” This changed the atmosphere from the hard-rubber balls bouncing excitedly around the room to spoiling fruit:

Claude looked startled. The tea-colored woman looked mean. The tall dark fellow said, “I been wanting to dance with that girl all evening. Come here!” Joan went. At that moment, a new record began to play.

…The music was uranium, and those seven people, had they been super-duper spies, could not have known more about atomic energy—that is, its reason for being a mighty way of dying, “Oh, but I do” being a component.

That made both of the colored women very angry. The one whom nobody noticed stopped still, grabbed the man by his lapels, and said, “Sit down, you clown!”

He sat down. 

So if I’m reading this right, (and it’s unlikely I am, but here goes…), Hughes is struggling with our wants for the world and the social restrictions that keep us from those wants. The party was going great. Everyone (except the tea-colored woman) seemed to be having a great time. This “outsider” comes in and seems to be the life of the party, breaking social conventions, drawing people to her with her unjudging generosity, her comfort among strangers, her generosity and desire to simply keep the joy of the party going for everyone. 

And then the social norms break through the wall. White women shouldn’t be in Harlem dancing with the men. They certainly shouldn’t be the one that other black men have “been wanting to dance with that girl all evening” with, even if that man’s date is unappreciative, demanding, and unkind. The “just there” couple even quit participating at this perceived social slight. 

But what was that slight? Why is it that the white outsider, the party’s gay host, and the tall unappreciated man who had paid for two-thirds of the night are the ones that in the end are left enjoying themselves when everyone else is angry? 

I suggest it’s because they’re present. They’re fully engaged in the party and not just using the party like a social crutch to boost their egos and their social standing. They are fully present in the joy of the evening, and in the end… we realize that the three enjoying the evening loudly at the end are those that are not there to find out who’s in and who’s out- but instead those that are “all in” and inviting others to be a part generously and kindly. They offered kindness and received cold shoulders.

I don’t understand why this happens, but in my experience it often does. I’m blind to the social expectations in the room, but I like to be generous, kind, and enjoy the moment without thinking about how it will affect my tomorrow, certainly not how it will affect other’s opinions of me then. When I can facilitate joy, I want to. I expect no repayment- I’m getting the payment in the moment! For many, however, this is perceived as some sort of Machiavellian scheme to uplift myself and disparage others. And all the unity that was built is quickly destroyed with bitterness, ego, and shame. 

I looked into some more of Hughes’s work and found this video of “Salvation.”

It seemed to me that this is similar to O’Connor’s work. It’s a struggle of someone trying to find the sinicerity and beauty in the world who can’t accept the hollow external reinforcements of our ego’s game as a substitute.

In the film, Langston is a young boy who is living with his loving Aunt and Uncle. His aunt is a “holy roller” type who is most excited when people get “saved” at her church’s revival. She pressures Langston to go and he is forced to sit in the front row with the other “unsaved kids.” The preaching gets going and the altar call starts, and the kids start walking up. Langston and a boy named Westley are the last two kids on the bench, not ready to make that kind of jump. Westley finally  says “God Damn… I guess I’ll just get up and be saved.” (about 20 minutes in)

Langston’s internal monologue says:

Westley didn’t see Jesus, he was just tired of sitting there. I felt so ashamed for holding everyone up. Where was Jesus, where was he? Where was this light I was supposed to see? What was I supposed to do? Pretend, like Westley? 

He walks up to the front of church and gets “saved,” making his aunt’s expectations and hopes seemingly fulfilled, but at home, he cries himself to sleep.  

Again, here is young Langston, like the three at the end of Seven People Dancing recognizing that we often substitute real beauty for our expectations, or reject real beauty because we think that it somehow diminishes our own. The other 4 people at the party could have kept dancing even if the “outsider” made contributions to the experience. In the same way, the “outsider” at the church service was more sincere in his beliefs than most of those who wanted a cheap outward display rather than the complex, confusing realities of faith and doubt. 

Like my favorite poet Bill Malonee once said: 

“Aw, Jesus this stuff I bought, I thought it was Jewelry.
I thought this stuff was  jewelry,
but I believe you died to take these chains off of me.” 

And as another popular speaker once said

” So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Too often we’re trading our joys for sorrow, but I think the secret of life might be to turn that pattern around, and instead as another author put it “bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” 

Maybe finding beauty in the ash, the wisdom in simplicity, and joy in the moment is really what it’s all about. Again I’ll quote Cohen: “the cracks are where the light gets in.”