by Rev. Wallis C. Baxter III, Ph.D.
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?
- Langston Hughes, “Harlem” (1951, 1959)
In Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” the poet asks the question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Dreams, dreams, dreams…dreams are prescriptively at the core of American life and mission, both individually and collectively. Yes, we are in pursuit of happiness, but life and liberty are guaranteed to serve as the seedbed for our dreams. When life is a given, and liberty or freedom is assumed, dreams not only emerge but become possible. Simply, dreams formulate into hopes and desires that, once effort and energy are applied, become a new reality. Hence, we arrive at a so-called American Dream, which is actually a reality, when life and liberty jettison a dream that is not blocked or encumbered by the very system that encourages it. The problem for black and brown sisters and brothers in America is that neither life nor liberty is guaranteed, so happiness remains a fallacy at worst and a forbidden fruit at best.
Hughes approaches this concept of a deferred dream in a systematic and, arguably, clinical manner. The first question he asks is, “Does [the deferred dream] dry up / like a raisin in the Sun?” Has your dream, wishes, hopes, vision been subjected to the elements of the atmosphere so long that it has no more of the juiciness of life left in it? Sometimes the natural environment can actually be toxic. The toxicity of racism within American culture has a way of choking the life out of many dreams before they can fully develop. It is as though the desire of the environment or society, in this instance, is to turn up the heat so much as to dry out every possible residue of a dream, all the while, the ether of an American Dream is consistently dangled in our faces.
The second question Hughes asks is whether or not the dream “fester[s] like a sore– / And then run[s]?” It is as though the determination of the imperialist Democracy seeks to leave certain wounds that plague certain people undressed. As has been argued by many, the response to the opioid crisis (a formidable problem) is total and clear. In contrast, the response to gun violence, unfair/discriminatory policing, and even the crack epidemic-(you want to use another example here) has been left dangling in obscurity without any clear path forward. The problem is that untended sores become septic and end up spreading throughout the community. This is the “run” Hughes is intimating. If we allow sepsis to set in, it endangers everyone who comes in contact, while simultaneously killing the host.
In the next instance, Hughes asks what I consider to be a dual question: “Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet?” Could it be that the deferred dream becomes offensive? When meat goes bad, it has a tendency to cause everything nearby to stink. The pungent nature of it could lead one to throw out everything in the refrigerator. Oh, you could consume it, but you will get sick and ultimately regret it. On the other hand, there are ways to mask the odor. Consider the Diaper Genie or the cat’s litter box. Everyone knows what lies beneath the older blockers; the stinky substance is at the foundation. Ironically, even the odor blockers, the crusting, and sugaring over is a guise for a substantive issue. Often the homeowners don’t even realize that the odor still manages to seep through. No, it’s not as pungent as it could be, but it still has the evident qualities of something rotten. Only the visitor can rightly assess, at times, that there is a need to throw something out and start over.
It is at this point that Hughes makes an interjection in his line of questioning, “Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load.” The weight of the inability to realize hopes and dreams can become so burdensome that it seems inoperable and disagreeable. This interjection leads the poet to ask if the very weight, overwhelmingness, and pervasiveness of this deferral has the potential to explode. This idea of an explosion is a unique one, and the fact that it is italicized should give any reader pause when engaging this line. Is this really a question? It is structured as one and, as such, would lead the reader to come up with an answer of their own. Though this is a clear and understandable conclusion (and poetic), I believe there is a prescription within this interrogative.
Up to this point, it is assumed that Hughes is talking about black people. It makes sense that the weight of consistently dashed and deferred dreams would result in an eruption or explosion, not unlike what we witnessed in Minneapolis recently in the aftermath of the public lynching of George Floyd (not to mention the numerous other reactive riots within American history). An explosion is inevitable in the face of such oppression. Nevertheless, what if Hughes is talking about white people? The same questions and potential consequences apply; however, the final question takes on new meaning. The question, “Or does it explode?” becomes a prescriptive plea for realignment. In short, sometimes, there is no real way to reform, revive, or restructure without an explosion. If happiness is defined and policed by the framers (who were white), and life and liberty are meant to be pursued by those considered a full part of the original people group with access to the American Dream, then there is a need for a major disrupting, dismantling, and deconstruction in order to reconstruct. What then is required is for the dominant culture to choose to allow their deferred dream to explode. The question is whether or not white America (and I am not so presumptive as to believe this to be a blanket statement) will take their prescription and blow up a misaligned system that is flawed to the core, a system that is misaligned morally, ethically, socioeconomically, politically, and, yes, theologically.