Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes: Poems Summary and Analysis of "On the Road"


Sargeant steps off the train but he does not feel the cold, wet snow on his face. It is seeping down into his shoes, but he does not notice. If someone were to ask him, he probably would have claimed not to know that it was snowing at all. He does not even notice the snow in the lights of the main street at night. He is sleepy and hungry. He knocks on the parsonage door of Reverend Dorset, who notices the snow right away. He sees the "big black man with snow on his face" and notes that Sargeant is clearly unemployed. Right away, Reverend Dorset tells Sargeant to go to the relief shelter down the street. Sargeant says nothing even though he has already been to that shelter and many others during the Depression.

Sargeant turns away, hungry and cold. He sees a church right next door, which makes sense because he had just been knocking at the parsonage next door. He notices the snowy steps, the high arched doors, and the figure of Christ crucified in the lacy window. He finally notices the snow when it falls into his eyes. Knocking on the door yields nothing, so Sargeant forces his weight against it. The door gives way after a struggle. However, the noise has attracted attention from white people in the street, who yell at Sargeant, shocked. He tells them that he is looking for a place to sleep, but two white cops arrive almost right away. Sargeant has no intention of going away calmly so he pushes back against the pillars of the church. The white observers are scandalized. Suddenly, the whole church collapses in on itself, the remains covering the people and the cops before smashing into the snow. Sargeant walks away from the ruins with the stone pillar heaved up on his shoulder. He laughs to think he might have buried Reverend Dorset and his "No!"

Sargeant walks along until he realizes that he is not alone. Alongside him is Christ, who has come down from the crucifix in the church. Sargeant is surprised and says, "Well, I'll be dogged." He has never seen Christ off the cross. Christ replies that he is free only because Sargeant pulled the church down. Sargeant asks Christ if he is glad, Christ replies that he is, and they both laugh. Sargeant marvels at what has done and Christ commends Sargeant for getting him down from a cross he had been nailed to for two thousand years. Sargeant says if he had a bit of money he would show Christ around, but Christ says he has seen things.

They keep walking to the railroad yard. Sargeant asks Christ where he is going, explaining that he himself is only a bum. Christ shrugs, saying "God knows" and claims that he's leaving anyway. The two notice the red and green lights of the railroad yard and a fire from a hobo jungle. Sargeant decides to go sleep in the hobo jungle. There are makeshift houses of tin and wood and canvas strung up among the trees. The modest dwellings might not have been noticeable unless "you'd ever been on the road, if you had ever lived with the homeless and hungry in a depression."

Sargeant says goodbye to Christ when Christ says he is going ahead to Kansas City. After they depart, Sargeant goes into the hobo jungle. In the morning, he and a few other hobos grab a ride on a freight train that is passing through. Sargeant wonders where Christ is. On the train, Sargeant realizes that there are white cops there. The cops rap him on the knuckles, call him a "coon," and tell him he is in jail. Sargeant, to his shock, realizes that he is in jail. He has dried blood on his face and a pounding headache, and the cop is hitting his knuckles. Sargeant realizes that he must have been taken to jail after trying to break into the church.

He feels cold, wet, and bruised. He mutters to the cop that he will break down the prison door too, but the cop tells him to shut up. Sargeant yells that he will break the door down and then wonders to himself where Christ has gone and if he made it to Kansas City.


Langston Hughes's short story "On the Road" deals with racism and religion. The story begins with the main character, Sargeant, stepping off of the train into the snowy night. This detail is a metaphor for the whiteness that continues to be a motif throughout the story. The snow is the dominant detail that Hughes uses to describe the environment that Sargeant steps into when he gets off the train. Sargeant does not even notice the swirling whiteness, despite the fact that it is making him cold and uncomfortable. However, Reverend Dorset notices the snow immediately. Regardless, he refuses to let Sargeant into his parsonage because of the man's dark skin and lack of employment.

Although the reverend is a religious man whose faith instructs him to look out for the needy, he promptly shuts Sargeant out of the parsonage. The reverend's inability to manifest any compassion for a black man reveals the hypocrisy of his religious beliefs as well as the pervasive racism of the 1930s. Like the snow, the reverend is cold and harsh.

Sargeant is relieved when he sees the church next door. In this story, Hughes frequently uses doors as symbols of separation between the black and white characters. To continue the metaphor, Sargeant keeps pushing the church door, but it is unyielding; Hughes uses words like "hardness," "stone," and "loftiness" to emphasize its inaccessibility. Therefore, Sargeant feels that his only option is to keep pulling at the church door until the entire edifice falls down. This event echoes the biblical story of Samson (whose power was God-given). The cruel white bystanders and cops are buried in the remains of the building, leaving Sargeant free to go on his way.

In a second reading, the reader realizes that the church falling down is part of Sargeant's own fantasy after his arrest. In Sargeant's mind, though, his journey continues and he makes his way down the road. As Sargeant walks away from the rubble, he is surprised to see Christ walking next to him. The two have an easy, genial conversation. Over the course of this exchange, Hughes implicates the white people who keep Christ firmly ensconced in their prayers, but do not live by his teachings, especially when it comes to their treatment of African Americans. Thanks to Sargeant, however, Christ is liberated, free to wander away. Both men rejoice in their independence from the white power that keeps them imprisoned.

Then, the tone of the story becomes sadder and more downbeat. Christ says that he has seen a lot, been around, and now, he just wants to get out of there. Sargeant is also "tried, sweating and tired" and feels welcome in the darkness of the hobo jungle. He has moved beyond the snowy discomfort and the racism and has now found a place that he is safe. In this turn of events, Christ also voluntarily walks away from the church, disappointed, weary, and claiming that he is "glad" to be out of there.

The next morning, when Sargeant catches a freight train, Hughes reveals the twist. For the second half of the story, Sargeant has been dreaming, hallucinating, or inventing a narrative to make himself feel better. He realizes that he actually stuck in jail, where he must have been taken after trying to break into the church. This harsh reality is a rude awakening for the reader. Fiction gives readers the expectation of fantasy, which is why writers have the freedom to employ dramatic license. Even though it is physically impossible for Christ to descend from the crucifix and talk to Sargeant, the reader is willing to suspend reality in this context. Therefore, the reader subjectively feels the same disappointment as Sargeant does upon discovering that this fantasy is not real.

The reality is that the cruel, racist cops hold the power, and Sargeant cannot escape. Hughes's indictment of the white patriarchy emerges here - he describes the presence of a crucifix in a church to Christ being wrongfully imprisoned for 2,000 years. Even though Sargeant discovers that his conversation with Christ was all in his head, he still has hope. His spirit is much more vibrant at the end of the story than it is at the beginning, and he threatens to tear the whole prison down. This statement echoes the theme of perseverance that marks many of Hughes's poems and stories. He encourages his African American readers to remain hopeful, even when the barriers to freedom seem impossible to overcome.