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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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