A Dream Deferred: Langston Hughes, Then and Now

Understanding the trauma of racism.

Posted May 30, 2020

Adobe photostock, licensed by Ravi Chandra
Source: Adobe photostock, licensed by Ravi Chandra

“What happens to a dream deferred?”

We are always in dialogue with Langston Hughes' short poem Harlem, first published in 1951. I can hear Hughes in the background of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. I hear Hughes’ poetic proposed answers to his question rising today on the streets of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Cleveland and San Jose, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. 

“Does it explode?”

The PBS series Poetry in America focused on Harlem in an episode of season 1, available for streaming. I encourage you all to watch it.

The power of this poem, for me, lies not only in its specificity for the Black American experience, but also the way it touches our common humanity. We all have dreams. We all have to deal with not having what we want in life, at least some of the time. We all have to deal with having what we do not want. These are part of Buddha’s First Noble Truth – “Life involves suffering.” Suffering (or dukkha) is often translated as “dissatisfaction,” but today I’m feeling Stephen Batchelor’s interpretation, anguish. "Life is anguish." What happens to a life in anguish? What happens when our needs aren’t met? What happens when our dream is deferred? Our smaller dreams, perhaps of a financial stability? Our big dreams, of justice, safety, peace, and equity?

Harlem can be read as a panoramic snapshot of 400 years of Black history in America. Dreams shattered by slavery, Jim Crow, genocide and incalculable hostility, racism, and casual bias. No one could argue that the soul of Black America has lacked resilience and determination in that struggle, not only to persevere and improve its own lot against seemingly impossible odds, but also to hold America to a higher standard and to improve the lives of all Americans, including me. But no one could argue that the dreams of Black Americans have not been deferred, denied, and marginalized. Sure, there’s been some substantive progress. We’ve had (one) Black president. But we live in a divided country where the needs and dreams of Blacks and Browns, women and minorities, are seen as less important than the needs of the wealthy, white, male, and privileged.

We know we’re with a narcissist when we feel devalued. When someone makes us feel like our thoughts, needs, feelings, and dreams are not important. We are living in a society that has not dealt with its self-centeredness and narcissism, which it glorifies as individualism; a society that devalues all those it doesn’t consider truly part of itself.

As human beings, we might all have to deal with suffering, and having our dreams deferred or denied. 

But what happens to the dream called America when it is deferred? Our collective dream? Our E Pluribus Unum dream? Our dream of unalienable rights?

Is that dream a crying river, now, carrying us all to an uncertain but certain end?

I hope Harlem isn’t the epitaph for that big, beautiful American dream. If we are to explode, may it be an explosion of compassion, an explosion that evaporates the walls of self-centeredness and brings inclusion.

May it be so; because the dream is exploding now.

(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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