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April 21, 2011

When I teach the play, A Raisin in the Sun, I think a lot about dreams. How much do they weigh on a person? Does everyone have dreams? And is it true, as Langston Hughes says, that a dream deferred ends in an explosion?

“Harlem” or “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?

As much as A Raisin in the Sun is about systemic racial discrimination in America in 1959, when it was written, it is also about the strong ties that connect family. It is about the past and the future, and how much societal and individual histories impact what opportunities are left for us. It is about integrity, and pride in who you are, even when everyone is telling you that who you are isn’t good enough.

The only thing that gets you through this kind of harsh reality, I suspect, is having dreams.

What are my dreams? What are yours?

I have dreams for my country, my family, my children, my friends. But I also have dreams for myself. And if I am to listen to Langston Hughes, those might be the most important. They are the dreams I have the most power to achieve.

52 years after A Raisin in the Sun was written, I leave one class, where I’ve shown the 1961 film production, to my next class in Northwest Philadelphia. It’s a day where we’ve talked about economic mobility in America, the segregation of modern neighborhoods despite the changes in law; a day when I’ve watched Sidney Poitier play Walter, dropping to his knees, his voice cracking with the weight of practicality and loss as a black man in Chicago before the Civil Rights Movement. Each time I watch this scene, I am filled with emotion, just as I am at the end of the play, when the family decides to take a stand and live in a white neighborhood, despite threats of violence and no guaranteed protection from the law.

And as I pass Martin Luther King High School every week, I see this poem from Langston Hughes. It appears in large, scrolling font on the side of the building. Images of black and gray birds fly around the text and taper off, giving the illusion that they really are leaving the school’s brick and fluttering into the sky.

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

Seeing this outwardly simple poem once a week, I have already committed it to memory, as I’m sure Hughes intended. So when I go about my day, making coffee, walking from one room to another, putting my head on the pillow at night, I think about dreams, about wide open fields longing to flourish with life.

I can imagine no better way to fill those fields than with the knowledge and possibility that comes from learning, from poetry.

What are your dreams?

*This post part of National Poetry Month.
Image: “birds sky” by guuleed via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.
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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

TheKitchenWitch April 21, 2011 at 9:03 am

That Poitier scene makes me weepy every time–so incredibly powerful. And I think it’s the perfect pairing–Raising and Dream Deferred. The two together pack a heck of a wallop, don’t you think?

I am ashamed to say that I don’t really know what my dream is.


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:16 am

Really? What about a Food Network show, hmm? I can dream for you….


Sarah April 21, 2011 at 9:42 am

I have also committed the Langston Hughes poem to memory… in part, to remind myself not to be too caught up in the everyday mundane. It’s so easy for me to wrap myself up in to-do lists and petty irritations. I need to spend more time with my dreams.


Scott April 22, 2011 at 8:13 am

Sarah, I like your frame of mind. I’ve been very caught up in the mundane for some time now. Forever I have looked upon crossing things off my to-do list as form of gratification to overcome the mundane. My problem is I just keeping adding to the list so it never ends. Maybe stepping back and spending some time with a dream or two might change things.


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

I like it, too, Scott. I think it’s about inspiration. I need inspiration or I become like a raisin. In the sun. Ooh. Wait….


Rudri Bhatt Patel @ Being Rudri April 21, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Excellent reminder Jana. That particular poem by Hughes is an important mantra to recall in those times when dreams and dreaming seem utterly impossible.


Justine April 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

These are great poems about dreams. Another one that I often go to is Hurston’s opening passage in her book, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”:

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

Sometimes I wish I could act and do things accordingly, but it’s not always that easy. I guess that’s the point of dreams isn’t it? To make the seemingly unachievable within your grasp someday.

My dreams? A stroll by the Mediterranean Sea with my love. Summer vacations with the family in Provence. Happy, healthy kids and partnership. Confidence in my craft and pursuits. Too much to ask?


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:20 am

Wow, did you actually open that book and copy it for this comment? Thanks for expending such effort! And it’s beautiful. I read Their Eyes in college and loved the beginning, but not the end. (Thought it was rushed.) But it probably deserves a second read.

And as far as your dreams…no, I don’t think you’re asking too much. Those are pretty much my dreams, too. Though four plane tickets to Provence are expensive. See? I’m always weighed down with the practicalities of things.


Cathy @ All I Want To Say April 21, 2011 at 3:55 pm

The thing about dreams is that if you are not working towards them, what purpose do they serve?


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:21 am

A dose of reality, here Cathy. If you know the play, I’m going to cast you as Ruth. You’re saying “Eat your eggs, Walter.” And Walter (the dreamer) is saying, “Damn all the eggs that ever was!”

If this doesn’t make any sense, feel free to ignore it.


Kate April 21, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Here’s my problem – it seems to live one dream I must defer another. Maybe I lack enough grand vision? Maybe I get to caught up in reality to let my dreams soar? Then again, if I keep dreaming my dreams am I truly deferring them or just continuing on the path toward them?

Lovely piece.


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:25 am

I know what you mean. And I don’t know. Let’s get our Ouija boards out and ask Hughes what he thinks.

And when I’m not being a smart-ass, I’d say that there is probably a time for everything, a time when your iron is hot. I guess the trick is knowing when is when and what is what. But I’m not the psychologist. Dana is. And she seems like a pretty good one. I like her comment–not to make the gulf between dreams and reality so vast that they seem unattainable.


Dana Udall-Weiner April 21, 2011 at 9:38 pm

Dreams deferred are dangerous, indeed. I find that dreams are an essential part of motherhood, because I depend upon them to remind me that my days won’t always be full of diapers (for better or worse). But if the gulf between my dreams and my reality is too vast, then it’s a recipe for depression and feeling stuck. I try to hold on to dreams for motivation, but not so tightly that my current reality looks bleak.


Jana April 22, 2011 at 8:27 am

I love this, Dana! And I think this reminds us to not have only one dream, but to make sure we have little goals we can achieve daily or weekly or monthly in order to be happy. (I’m also reminded of The Happiness Project here, because I think that many chapters of that book have this same idea.)


dusty earth mother April 24, 2011 at 9:18 pm

What a lovely post, Jana. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen or read “Raisin in the Sun” and it was good to be reminded of it. My dream? I guess it’s to write something about my spiritual life that is genuine, true, funny and moving and to help people see God in a new way. Not too big of a goal, hmmm? :-)


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