I Don’t Remember Reading This in my Black History Class…

It’s a short, potentially-surprising piece called “Salvation” by Langston Hughes, the famed writer and activist from the Harlem Renaissance:

I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this. There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed’s church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting, and some very hardened sinners had been brought to Christ, and the membership of the church had grown by leaps and bounds. Then just before the revival ended, they held a special meeting for children, “to bring the young lambs to the fold.” My aunt spoke of it for days ahead. That night I was escorted to the front row and placed on the mourners’ bench with all the other young sinners, who had not yet been brought to Jesus.

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. So I sat there calmly in the hot, crowded church, waiting for Jesus to come to me.

The preacher preached a wonderful rhythmical sermon, all moans and shouts and lonely cries and dire pictures of hell, and then he sang a song about the ninety and nine safe in the fold, but one little lamb was left out in the cold. Then he said: “Won’t you come? Won’t you come to Jesus? Young lambs, won’t you come?” And he held out his arms to all us young sinners there on the mourners’ bench. And the little girls cried. And some of them jumped up and went to Jesus right away. But most of us just sat there.

A great many old people came and knelt around us and prayed, old women with jet-black faces and braided hair, old men with work-gnarled hands. And the church sang a song about the lower lights are burning, some poor sinners to be saved. And the whole building rocked with prayer and song.

Still I kept waiting to see Jesus.

Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder’s son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.” So he got up and was saved.

Then I was left all alone on the mourners’ bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and song swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans and voices. And I kept waiting serenely for Jesus, waiting, waiting – but he didn’t come. I wanted to see him, but nothing happened to me. Nothing! I wanted something to happen to me, but nothing happened.

I heard the songs and the minister saying: “Why don’t you come? My dear child, why don’t you come to Jesus? Jesus is waiting for you. He wants you. Why don’t you come? Sister Reed, what is this child’s name?”

“Langston,” my aunt sobbed.

“Langston, why don’t you come? Why don’t you come and be saved? Oh, Lamb of God! Why don’t you come?”

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 certainly hadn’t seen Jesus either, but who was now sitting proudly on the platform, swinging his knickerbockered legs and grinning down at me, surrounded by deacons and old women on their knees praying. 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.

So I got up.

Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise. Waves of rejoicing swept the place. Women leaped in the air. My aunt threw her arms around me. The minister took me by the hand and led me to the platform.

When things quieted down, in a hushed silence, punctuated by a few ecstatic “Amens,” all the new young lambs were blessed in the name of God. Then joyous singing filled the room.

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.

(via Black Atheism on Reddit — yep, that exists!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    like other atheists, black atheists exist in good number but are ignored by the media. almost all my black family and friends are atheists. and frankly, there are plenty of black church going atheists as well; people go to church for community as much as for worship, and the atheists among them just don’t speak about what they really believe. Hughes experience is probably quite typical among young black people today.

  • http://twitter.com/LorriTiger243 Rebel

    Make this a white southern baptist church and this is my story too.

    • Josh

      Yeah me too, except that I didn’t bother waiting very long.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mujica.alex Alejandro Mujica

    @chicagodyke:disqus I totally agree. That sense of community is paramount. I can only image what it’d be like to be surrounded by friends and family that’d love you if you just made believe. I just wrote a nonfiction piece that shares similarities with this story. Very inspirational!

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.ellis.dickerson David Dickerson

    Actually, many if not most of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance (Alain Locke, W.E.B. Dubois, Claude McKay, Ann Petry etc.) were atheists and agnostics, at least in part because the 1920s marked the first major population shift from south to north (it seems every author has at least one short story about how glad they are not to have to go to church now that they live in the big city), as well as the first large-scale flirtation between the black rights movement and the Communist Party (which was the only organization at the time that really leapt in to help the legal defense of blacks facing discrimination). Most of these notables later fell out with the Party (there’s a whole section in “Invisible Man” devoted to it), but the connection between communists and black folks was still strong enough to last into the 40s and 50s and attract Angela Davis, Paul Robeson, Richard Wright and others.

    This post is the first real thing my Ph.D. has accomplished. Thanks for the opportunity!

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/DJRVGKGG36KNLNMZAVT4EXOF3M Ed-words

    I see a friendly black Pentecostal creationist x-Marine preacher in the library
    once in a while.I guessed he was working on a sermon, and told him I was 
    an atheist.”You don’t believe in miracles?” he asked with wonder.

    I’ve since given him some FFRF pamphlets and the
    clergyproject.com site. My damnation is assured. 

    • Gerry

      I realize a lot of religious people think miracles and religion are related, but I’ve never quite gotten that. A miracle is a miracle because it just happens. If there’s a magic guy in the clouds causing it to happen, it’s not a miracle, is it?

  • Erik_F

    Man, that’s sad. I’m so lucky to have never gone through anything even remotely like that…

  • Misfituser

    That could have described my childhood. Crying to the pastor’s wife: “why does it happen to everyone but me?” But secretly just starting to doubt the existance of god.

  • self-employed hobo

    Really? I’m surprised so few people have read that story. I read it for sophomore English in high school. A Catholic high school.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adam-Patrick/100000027906887 Adam Patrick

    I remember reading this in my first English class in college.

    I can kind of relate to it. When I was still a theist, I remember all these things happening to people around me that they claimed were from God. The “spiritual high” feeling maybe. They seemed so happy and fulfilled. I always wondered why it didn’t happen to me. I wanted to feel that same happiness, and I wondered why God didn’t do the same thing for me. Now I know why. 

    Recently, I found out I can get the “spiritual high” feeling by reading stuff about astronomy and astrophysics. Not sure how many others get that feeling, but I love it.

    • Michael

      I think I know the feeling you mean. I get it from anything I don’t understand. Back in the day the X-Files was wonderful for it.

    • Erik_F

      I know exactly what you mean. What god never gave me I get from the universe itself, and the fact that it is actually real makes it so much more profound.

      What would be a more amazing truth: that we are the product of billions of years of universe evolution, made up of the byproducts of stellar fusion — or just the whim of a mysterious and unknowable god?

    • Divajc

      Most don’t know that ASTROLOGY was the FIRST RELIGION!

      • Danse Macabre

        Ok?

        Not really sure how that relates?  Astrology != Astronomy

    • CW

      Ha, it is good to see that the “spirit” is alive and well, and that others have not simply abandoned themselves to a hedonistic conception of materialism.

      For me, philosophy and anthropology (see: Joseph Campbell) are the highest forms of worship…

  • Jacquelyngeist

    Sometimes a crumb falls
    From the tables of joy,
    Sometimes a bone
    Is flung.
    To some people
    Love is given, To others Only heaven. Langston Hughes – LuckOne of my favorite poems.

  • Divajc

    A lie begets a lie!

  • Ashley Will

    I remember reading this is one of my English classes too. either high school or college, can’t remember, but I know I read it. Very good.

  • Sagewolf

    Never read the story until today.  I really was waiting for the punchline.  I wanted it to turn out to say the boy stood up only to go to the bathroom!  “Damn that Jesus!  Making me wait too long!  I gotta go before I burst! ”   Oh well, in my head I re-wrote it to suit my fancy.  In the end, the kid didn’t get ‘saved’ and he was able to relieve his bladder. 

  • Alla & Greg M

    This story is just straight from Federico Fellini’s movie or Fellini used this story as inspiration!

    I need to put Hughs in my reading list.

  • Nick Andrew

    Jesus got the credit as soon as Langston stood up – which he had to do eventually.
    I wonder how many people in that room were acting a part, like Langston?

    Dear religious people – please learn to think critically. That Langston says he is saved by Jesus does not mean he is saved. Please find the physical evidence corresponding to your beliefs, and stop using every event to confirm your wishful thinking.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=553145445 Gordon Duffy

      Also when Jesus didn’t come and the boy is faithfully waiting… why does the boy get blamed? Why not blame Jesus for not showing up?

  • Anonymous

    I love this story by Langston Hughes and its one  i repeat when i discuss atheism and the church. Thanks Mehta for posting this…

  • Anonymous

    I’m so glad that my school is giving a voice to black atheism!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting they only asked the kid that didn’t get up why he didn’t, and not the others why they did.

  • Bo Tait

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PYani3Rh30
     
    More black atheists than you think!


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