Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656
Langston Hughes's short story "On the Road" follows a homeless man, Sargeant, as he struggles with racism and deprivation in a small town during the Depression. Racism—and how it ties in with hypocritical white Christianity—is a key theme in the story. From a very early point, Hughes introduces seemingly Christian...
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Langston Hughes's short story "On the Road" follows a homeless man, Sargeant, as he struggles with racism and deprivation in a small town during the Depression. Racism—and how it ties in with hypocritical white Christianity—is a key theme in the story. From a very early point, Hughes introduces seemingly Christian characters whose immediate response to seeing Sargeant, a "big black man," is to dismiss him. Key among these is the Reverend Mr. Dorset, a minister from whom Christian charity might be expected, and yet:
Said the Reverend Mr. Dorset before Sargeant even realized he'd opened his mouth: "I'm sorry. No! Go right on down this street four blocks and turn to your left, walk up seven and you'll see the Relief Shelter. I'm sorry. No!" He shut the door. Sargeant wanted to tell the holy man that he had already been to the Relief Shelter, been to hundreds of relief shelters during the depression years, the beds were always gone and supper was over, the place was full, and they drew the color line anyhow. But the minister said, "No," and shut the door. Evidently he didn't want to hear about it. And he had a door to shut.
As the story progresses, Sargeant is made keenly aware of his blackness, a fact Hughes reminds us of through the repetition of how white the town is—"white people," "white cops," the covering of snow on the church—and through references to Sargeant as a "big black man" and even as a "black Negro." This latter is a tautology—it is not necessary to describe a person as both black and "Negro," as the two words have the same meaning. This simply underlines how strongly the fact of Sargeant's blackness resonates with the people in the town: it is not only the first thing they notice about him, but essentially all they care to notice.
In his mind, Sargeant so fiercely wants to dismantle this hypocrisy that he actually pulls down the church. Seeking only shelter, he is turned away and arrested; the violence inflicted upon him by the police causes him to hallucinate a scenario in which he pulls down the building in its entirety. Afterward,
Sargeant thought he was alone, but listening to the crunch, crunch, crunch on the snow of his own footsteps, he heard other footsteps, too, doubling his own. He looked around, and there was Christ walking along beside him, the same Christ that had been on the cross on the church—still stone with a rough stone surface, walking along beside him just like he was broken off the cross when the church fell down.
This is a key moment in the story—Sargeant thought he was alone, only to realize that Christ is with him. Christ is the only person in the story who treats Sargeant like a human being and an equal. He uses language pitched identically to Sargeant's; Sargeant imagines that his actions—of pulling the church down —have freed Christ from his imprisonment within this institution.
At the end of the story, Sargeant realizes that all of this was only in his mind—he is really in jail. However, despite that, he clings to the thought of his meeting with Christ, as if it touched him in some important way, even though it didn't really happen.
"I'm gonna break down this door," yelled Sargeant as he stood up in his cell. Then he must have been talking to himself because he said, "I wonder where Christ's gone? I wonder... if he's gone to Kansas City?"
Where Christ has gone is an important question in this story, which seeks to answer the question of where Christianity has gone in a world ruled by racism and a disinclination to help others. However, for Sargeant, there is clearly a lingering fondness for what Christ really represents, and a hope that he—and real Christianity—are out there somewhere.