Langston Hughes's short story "On the Road" begins and ends realistically enough: his protagonist, Sargeant, enters a strange town one winter's night during the Depression and finds himself without shelter, as many did during this era. Hughes gives Sargeant the additional burden of being an African-American in the "white" part of town; therefore, he faces the perfectly plausible obstacles of shelters that "drew the color line" and racist police officers who beat and imprison him. But despite the realistic beginning and ending of the story, Hughes places an elaborate fantasy segment involving Sargeant talking to a stone Christ who has "broken off the cross" in the story's middle. Hughes uses this fantasy segment to condemn the hypocrisy of many so-called Christians. That the town's "Christians" are hypocrites is established by Hughes before the fantasy sequence.
Hughes foreshadows the Sargeant-Christ conversation by having the townspeople reacting in a very un-Christian, racist manner to Sargeant's desire to enter the "white" church to gain shelter from the snowstorm. The townspeople not only shout their objection to Sargeant's attempts to gain entry to the church, but when the police arrive to try to pull Sargeant away from the stone pillar to which he clings, "Most of the people in the street got behind the cops and helped them pull." The narrator makes their racist motivation clear when he reports their thought, which stresses Sargeant's race twice in the same sentence: "A big black unemployed Negro holding onto our church!" Sargeant's fantasy, prompted by the cops' beating which "nobody protested," is probably inspired by his awareness of how un-Christian these people are acting. In the fantasized conversation, Christ confirms for Sargeant that people like those in the town have kept him "nailed to a cross for nearly two thousand years," and that he is glad that Sargeant has finally liberated him. Christ's meaning here is clear: that many Christians have reduced him to merely a symbol of suffering rather than having allowed the spirit of what he taught to roam freely. While they may claim to revere Christ's image on the stone crucifix, the townspeople have completely failed to heed Christ's message of brotherhood and love, as proven by their reaction to Sargeant's attempt to enter their church. The white townspeople have proven as cold and unresponsive as the snow which blankets their town.
The newly-liberated stone Christ may not know where to go next, "but I'm leavin' here," he tells Sargeant. Christ feels that going anyplace else would be preferable to continuing to reside among the racist hypocrites of the town. By having Sargeant bring Christ to the hobo jungle to stay among the "homeless and hungry," Hughes is creating an ironic inversion: the people who are usually considered to be the better segment of society are revealed as cruel and heartless; the homeless hoboes, usually viewed as the dregs of society, are revealed as kind and welcoming. Neither Sargeant nor Christ is sent away from the hobo jungle; "That place ain't got no doors" built to exclude them, unlike the white church. So by having Christ come off the cross to converse with the protagonist and walk among the homeless, Hughes is able to deliver a powerful message about hypocrisy among well-off Christians who are unwilling to share what they have with the less fortunate. But by placing this message within a fascinating fantasy dreamed up by a poor bum beaten into unconsciousness, Hughes is able to get his message across without sounding "preachy." Thus Hughes ensures that his message is received and understood by the reader.
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