“Whatever happens to a dream deferred?” The famous first line of Langston Hughes’ classic poem, Harlem, is frequently posed rhetorically in song, classrooms, and art. It’s a powerful question that belies the simple structure of the poem in which it first appeared. In her classic play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry skillfully crafts a story that demonstrates the power, tragedy and at times, the triumph in having dreams deferred – pointedly in an African American family. In a society that purposely and repeatedly denied full expression to African American families, deferred dreams can be the rule rather than the exception. In a nod to his poem, Ms. Hansberry’s work answers the question most adroitly.
I first read Harlem in middle school social studies. Langston Hughes was introduced to us in much the same manner as any “historical” Black figure was in the mid-70s – as an anachronism. But Langston Hughes was roughly the same age as my great-grandmother. He was her contemporary. I played in my great-grandmother’s skirt hem while she prepared meals. We visited her every summer in Arkansas until she died in 1983. I recall being awakened in the middle of one of those hot summer nights to her and my mother’s hands in my hair trying to remove bubble gum that I had fallen asleep with in my mouth. I knew her, I loved her and was loved by her. Why is that significant? Because she was roughly the same age as Langston Hughes. He was not a very distant figure and his musings on Black life were not far removed from our lives then, nor are they today.
This is not about Langston Hughes per se. It is about his words that asked a fundamental question about life, being presented as something to memorize, and repeat back in class, but not necessarily to grapple with as a legitimate question about Black life. Because of this, I filed his words away as one of those tidbits that I learned along the way that had no bearing on my life. I didn’t ponder the words or their implication until much later in life.
At the same middle school where I first read Harlem, I had a teacher named Mrs. Shook. By all accounts, a wonderful and caring teacher. I recall she would take us on field trips, but one stood out and made an indelible mark on my psyche. Mrs. Shook was an upper middle class white, Jewish woman and she lived in the equally upper middle class, white Jewish community of Bloomfield Hills, MI. Her class was and had been for many years, primarily middle and lower middle class Black kids from Highland Park, MI – home to the Ford Model T. The field trip to her home was the stuff of legends. It was something that all sixth graders looked forward to. We were in middle school now and got to go to Mrs. Shook’s house. My brothers and other older neighbors had all been on Mrs. Shook’s annual field trip to her home. When my turn came, I stood in awe of this beautiful home. My sixth-grade mind was especially impressed with her daughter’s room, which had her name emblazoned across the wall in a slick, geometric, 80s era style. I remember the colors – mauve, apricot, and white. I don’t remember her daughter’s name. Mrs. Shook showed us her home, fed us a beautifully laid out lunch and dessert and exhorted us about being able to have the same things if we “stayed in school”. Sensible advice, I suppose, but remember those dreams that can get deferred? I think they can also be diminished.
Years later, I would think about our trip to Mrs. Shook’s house and wondered why she felt the need to subtly tell us that our lives, homes, and neighborhoods were not good enough. Why was she diminishing our dreams to what she thought we should value and aspire to? Did she realize that many of us ended up with our dreams deferred anyway?
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to “be a lawyer”. I believe I was around 10 when I made that initial declaration to my family. My family that came from the South. The slaveholding, segregated, Blacks on one side of the street, whites on the other, Whites-only water fountains South. We passed the cotton fields and shanty houses on our way to my great-grandmother’s house every summer. Every now and then, I would watch as a truck came by before the break of dawn to pick up dayworkers to go work in the fields. I once asked my mother where they were taking the people and she told me “to pick cotton”. My family on both sides left the South and scarcely looked back. They were on a journey to a perceived promised land that was to be found north via jobs and education. As a result, we were not asked if we were going to college, we were asked what college we were going to and what we were going to be.
I was going to Grambling or Georgetown, and I was going to be a lawyer. In the summer of 1985, all that changed. We moved out of our home and into an apartment. My parents separated and on my 13th birthday, I learned that me and my mother were moving to Chicago – a place I had never been. Was my dream deferred, diminished, exploded, or transformed into something else? More in my next post.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.