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An essay on symbolism used to emphasize racism, as used by Langston Hughes in his story On The Road
The object of this essay is to explore the rich symbolism used in Langston Hughes' book "On the Road" to express the nerve-numbing hopelessness of a man who, by no fault of his own, is thrust into society's cold handling of anything different from themselves. The symbols used in this short story depict the stark contrast between black and white, the impenetrable shroud of racist sentiment, and the all-encompassing acceptance of man as he is, rather than for who he is, by the founding force of a so-called 'forgiving' religion. The imagery employed by Hughes is elaborated on, so that the reader might gain insight into the utter despondency of those affected by racism; specifically, the black population if Hughes' time, and in general, anyone who is different, and thereby feared, despised, and discriminated against.
Sargeant, the protagonist of the story, is a 'big black man' (1) whose only concern and intent is to find a place to lay his weary head for the night. His unswerving focus is introduced in the story by using a negative representation of snow, of a blameless color, yet so cold and unforgiving, and so long a symbolic foe of Sargeant that he scarce notices it slowly enveloping his body. This powerful imagery is, no doubt, meant to drive home the point about the kind of white prejudice that has been the lot of black people for so long that it ceases to be of any immediate concern to the sufferer. Rather, the effects of the denied creature comforts are highlighted to effect. The hunger, sleep and fatigue caused by the constant searching for the basics of life are excellently portrayed even before the second character in the story is revealed.
The forceful effect of the first words of the 'Reverend' Dorset, "I'm sorry, no!" (1) is evidently enough to render Sargeant speechless. The three references to the word 'door' in the same paragraph are used to underline the barrier that was created between the races; it was one that even made a man of the cloth regret his decision to open that gateway which symbolically protected white people from the likes of this 'obviously unemployed' (1) Negro man. The refuge denied him was so predictable that he did not even make an attempt to argue before he 'turned away' (1). This silent acceptance of social ostracism perfectly depicts the quiet desperation of those discriminated against.
The word 'door' again, in the context of a place of refuge that has shut its usually open arms to him, is used to drive the last nail into the coffin of tolerance for anyone who is 'different'. This door is shown to be formidable, but with a soft tinge of being watched over by a man who was slighted in a far worse way for being different from those he sought to teach and live amongst. The door gives way under his persistent attempts, but not before it attracts the attention of those with the power to stop him, the policemen. The introduction of these characters represents the indulgence that the legal system and those representing it showed to racist practices. The very force that was supposed to protect and serve him was now pulling him away from the security and warmth that he craved. The way the policemen "ran up the steps with their clubs" (Hughes, 2) so clearly shows the readiness of the controlling factors in society to beat down the already down-trodden even further, allowing them not the slightest trace of hope of relief.
Equally poignant is Sargeant's attempt to grasp at straws, valiantly holding on to the one symbolic and literal pillar of hope left in his life, like that of a condemned man entitled to choose his last meal. The strength of his resolve is beautifully illustrated in the fact that it required the willing hands of several people to pull him away. At this point, Sargeant, unknown to himself, begins to have his hallucination about pulling down the church, a dominant contributing factor, if not the source, of racism in the western world. His tormented body and mind finally give in to fantasy, if just for a respite from the harsh reality that he is forced to go through. His conversation with a Christ who speaks his language hides some great truths beneath a mundane exterior; firstly, the relief of Christ at being finally released from a different kind of bondage; second, his sense of urgency to leave that place. Both these sentiments are shared by Sargeant and are likely the manifestations of the inner emotional conflict he faces. Sargeant's confident response of "Sure, that place ain't got no doors" (3) is a clear reference to the freedom he wishes to enjoy, unencumbered by the pressures and obligations of being discriminated against.
Sargeant's gaining consciousness is also pictured as a waking up to the harsh light of true reality. The slow fading away of the dream reality is clear in his reluctance to let go of the bars of his cell, and the episode leaves him convinced of the reality of his meeting with Christ. The resilient spirit of Sargeant will neither bow down to physical violence nor psychological abuse and neglect. His final cry of "I'm gonna break down this door, too" (4) is more an affirmation to his own spirit that he will prevail over his destiny than a threat of a jail-break. With this thought, Hughes leaves that well-known participant in any written story, the reader.