by Langston Hughes
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
The poem I taped to the fence at Mt. Elliott Cemetery in Detroit and the poem I’ve copied directly into this blog are not the same. The first version of “Harlem” is the familiar one, but the second, taken from the Poetry Foundation, is probably the definitive text. In print, the difference between an un-italicized last line and an italicized one seems a matter of style, but as I consider each version, that little difference takes on more substance. “Or does it explode?” sounds like a rhetorical question, in line with the other questions in the poem. But “Or does it explode?” sounds like a warning.
Although I had known Langston Hughes was an important figure in the Harlem Renaissance, a writer who suffered racial injustice and celebrated black culture, I had never read this particular poem in the context of race. I thought of the “dream deferred” as a universal experience, something that happens to all but the most self-actualized among us, the weight carried by the lawyer who wanted to be a singer-songwriter, the teacher who wanted to open a pastry shop. The drying up, the festering, the rotting, the sagging, the exploding are the result of not following the advice in another Hughes’ poem (ever-popular during graduation season) called “Dreams”:
Hold fast to dreams,
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird,
That cannot fly.
But when I see, thanks to the italics, the barely contained frustration of that last line, the poem becomes political all at once, a protest against the limits imposed on the lives of black Americans. Somehow I had missed the implication of “deferred” in “dream deferred.” Dreams fester and rot not because the dreamers have lost faith in their dreams or are too timid to make the leap, but because an outside force has deferred the dream. There’s a chilly bureaucratic feel to deferred, as if someone stamped a stack of handwritten dreams with the dreaded word and passed the pile on to another desk. Not now, not now. Come back on Tuesday.
The other meaning of deferred—to submit to another’s wishes—is at work here too. How would it feel to have your dream deferred by someone you’re supposed to pay deference to?
Read in this light, I guess “Harlem” doesn’t really belong where I placed it. The Mount Elliott Cemetery is a beautiful sanctuary in southeast Detroit originally built for Irish Catholics. I had passed by the cemetery after visiting the Solanus Casey Center across the street. With the poem in my purse, taping it to the fence seemed like a pretty good idea at the time or at least convenient. By the way, lots of famous Detroiters are buried here, including Beaubian, Campau, Chevrolet, and Hamtramck. (If you’re interested in Detroit history, you’ll enjoy great blog called Night Train. Link here for Night Train’s post on the Mount Elliott Cemetery.
Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was born in Missouri to a family whose ancestors included slaves and slave owners. His parents divorced when he was young, and his father moved to Cuba and Mexico to escape racism and to get away from other black Americans, who he had come to dislike. Hughes, on the other hand, embraced black culture, especially the lives of people he described as “workers, roustabouts, and singers, and job hunters on Lenox Avenue in New York, or Seventh Street in Washington or South State in Chicago—people up today and down tomorrow, working this week and fired the next, beaten and baffled, but determined not to be wholly beaten, buying furniture on the installment plan, filling the house with roomers to help pay the rent, hoping to get a new suit for Easter—and pawning that suit before the Fourth of July.” Later in his career he was criticized for “parading” working-class black characters who spoke in dialect, but his portrayals of those characters in poems, novels, and plays earned him the unofficial title of “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”
Before he found success as the first African-American to earn a living from his writing, Hughes worked as a sailor, a doorman, a waiter, a cook and a truck farmer. He attended Columbia University and graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where his classmate was Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
He published two autobiographies, several children’s books and wrote a popular column for the Chicago Defender for twenty years. He died at age 65 of prostate cancer.
(Sorry I don’t have a picture of the poet. I need to give myself an education on how to use images from the web on my blog. Flickr has changed and I can’t seem to pull a picture of Hughes to use. Also, WordPress won’t allow me to format the poem properly. All lines following the first should be indented.)