On Langston Hughes and Dreams Deferred
Written by Lauren Koleszar
Langston Hughes was a defining figure of the explosively creative Harlem Renaissance, and his poetry continues to voice the African-American experience and fight for equal opportunity and realization of the American Dream.
To consider the legacy of the fight for racial equality in the United States is bittersweet. On the one hand, we feel disheartened seeing a proliferation of racial inequality that sparks protests and riots still in modern times. This is so far from the future that Black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin desired so badly and imagined for the twenty-first century. On the other hand, we see the heartbeat of community and activism throughout history since the very beginning of racial inequality, showing us how fervently people have fought for what is right. Alongside these activists has always been a counterargument to social progress that emphasizes pragmatism and patience. This argument usually goes along the lines of, “We can’t move too fast,” or “People aren’t ready for so much change.” These are questions to which advocates for change have responded, “So, when?” When is the ‘right time’? When will people be ‘ready’ for change? Why should the rest of us live in fear of upsetting anyone for basic human rights and equal treatment?”
African-American writer Langston Hughes referred to this suppression of freedom as a ‘dream deferred,- which he describes through sensory and cautionary imagery in his poem “Harlem,” published in 1951 as a part of his collection, “Montage of a Dream Deferred.”
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?
Hughes uses such interesting language here, haunting and cautioning us. We understand this dream to originate as something full of life, juicy and plump like a piece of fruit — but this fruit also dries out into raisins; skin once healthy blisters and runs; animals are harvested and the meat is set out until it rots; or tasty candy is overrun with syrup until it chokes your throat as you try to swallow. Ultimately, says Hughes, this lively dream “just sags” like a burdensome weight carried on one’s shoulders, a harrowing piece of imagery reminiscent of slave life in earlier American history. Then he asks us in italics if, perhaps, this dream explodes.
In many ways, we are closer to racial equality than we were in 1951, when Hughes saw the beginning of the civil rights era and wrote “Harlem,” likely inspired by the 1943 Harlem riot. In the twenty-first century, we see Hughes’ warning as especially relevant. Hughes does not call for or condone violence, but he writes warily and excitedly about the kind of explosion that might take place if people keep waiting until others are “ready” for massive change. He cautions us that suppression of rights and equal treatment is dangerous and inhumane, in a similar way that wounds left untreated will become infected and grow fatal.
Langston Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, on February 1, 1902, making the same day this year what would have been his 99th birthday. Hughes is widely regarded as the most influential African-American writer to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, a vivacious period of creativity within the famously Black community in New York City during the early twentieth century. Before his career as a writer and following multiple moves as a child, Hughes and his mother settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he attended Central High School, where his writing was taken seriously and encouraged by his teachers, giving him a personal connection to the history of Cleveland. Hughes reflected later in his autobiographical work on how his classmates only expected him to have poetic potential because he was Black, which his white classmates thought was synonymous with having a natural sense of rhythm. In spite of this generalization, Hughes wrote one of his most famous poems at the age of 17 and pursued writing for the rest of his life.
Hughes could be very forward in his writing, but was also a master of subtext, making it easier to publish pieces in a world that decided it was not yet ready for the civil rights era. Today, freedom of speech and advocacy for Black rights has increased tremendously since Hughes’ time. There is still much to be done as we fight racial bias, but Hughes would be overjoyed to see that the first youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, is a 22-year-old African-American woman who recently captured the heart of the nation when she delivered the inaugural poem on January 20, 2021. Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” forwardly describes the hopes of a “skinny Black girl” revitalizing the ache for the American Dream.
You can read another of Hughes’ most famous poems in our Poetry section, and a large portion of his body of work is available online, as well as Gorman’s inaugural poem in full. Reading and sharing their work is an excellent celebration of Black History Month and a step toward realizing the African-American dream deferred.