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?
-Dream Deferred by Langston Hughes
One day I'll write a poem, or an essay -a book probably- on how profound this poem is. But for now, I want to talk about the man who wrote it, and when I met him, and why I've been in love with him ever since.
I'm weird. I sometimes fall in love with dead people: authors, poets, singers, songwriters, activists, artists... maybe it's safer to love them dead than alive. I especially love African-American history. MoTown music (late 1950s onward). Martin Luther and friends (1960s). Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad (1859). Rosa Parks and her indispensible 'but' (1955, pun intended). The Harlem Renaissance (1920s-60s). And especially Langston Hughes.
It was sixth form literature. We studied the Harlem Renaissance, one of the most profound periods in Afro-American history, a precursor to what would soon happen in the Caribbean when we started to develop our own (recognised) intellectual traditions (1960s-70s-now?). I always think it must have been awesome to live in a period when black people were defining their own identities (not that I'd ever trade places with anyone from that time. I'm fine here and now, thank you.)
The first poem we studied was Dream Deferred. And that day, Mr. Hughes won my heart. I marvelled at the simplicity of his language: the raw potent explosiveness behind his carefully measured words. Mesmerised, I started to research his life beyond class requirements. I began to read his poems with more fervency and passion, to feel reverence for this amazing man whose words helped to transform an entire nation. I wrote a whole book of (amateur) poems just feeding off the energy from his words alone. That was the same year I came third in the country for CAPE Lit. Langston really turned me on, I tell you! (no pun intended; and I studied Ayi Kwei Armah's 'The Beautyful Ones' that year as well - another absolutely powerful piece of work!)
One thing I've learnt is that history really makes literature come alive. Whenever I get the historical context for a piece of writing, my appreciation for it multiplies hundredfold. Reading about Langston's rise from Joplin, Missouri to Harlem, New York made him real to me. If writers who are able to articulate the feelings and hopes of an entire nation/race are dangerous, then Langston Hughes was lethal. He effectively captured the frustration and depression that afflicted African-Americans in 1950.
I felt his every word, and in my mind's eye, I could see him walking on desecrated black streets, passing dilapidated shops, looking into the faces of desperate people: broken men, women and children; reading the hurt in their eyes, and wondering... "what happens to a people who have lost the will to live? What happens to a dream deferred?"
I hope to grow up soon. And when I do, I hope to be a lethal writer too. Not like Langston Hughes. Like me. But with the same kind of intensity that makes the world turn on its axis, or that makes a little girl studying in high school many generations later sit up straighter in class, and start to really pay attention... and maybe even become inspired to write a legacy of her own...