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' poem "Harlem" has long been a favorite of mine, but my relationship with it has changed over the years. When my mother taught it in high school Freshman English, poetry was a mostly undiscovered country to me; I was drawn to it, yet there was something frightful about considering its final lines. When it was discussed in my college Freshman Composition class, the focus shifted more to the similes employed in service of the imagery generated. How do dreams "run?" Do they ever "stink like rotten meat," and if so, what can I derive from this?
Later, the poem's haunting final line came to the fore. What follows from that vague menacing reference of "or does it explode?" Is it related to the mistreatment of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance (the title after all is "Harlem" and not "A Dream Deferred," like some presume)? Is it something something even more universal, something akin to what Marxists of several stripes predict will ultimately occur in the end game of class struggle and conflict? This is what I pondered when I was in graduate school.
Now I am nearing middle age. I received my MA in History in May 1998. Thirteen years can make a huge difference. I once dreamed of contributing to the Functionalist/Intentionalist debate surrounding the Holocaust or of unveiling new ways of perceiving the religious symbolism found within some Third Reich structures. I dreamed of traveling much of the world, but not going to the usual tourist traps. I wanted to influence lives and to feel enriched for doing so. I dreamed big dreams of change, destruction in its most benevolent guise.
Yet now, looking back, all those dreams, deferred. There were no influential papers; I dropped out of my Ph.D. path after earning my MA due to burnout. I have yet to leave the United States and who knows if I ever will wander the length and breadth of the old Habsburg lands or to travel up and down the Americas to sit in restaurants listening to conversations and thinking new thoughts within the confines of a new language? I read, not for escape, but for engagement, but sometimes that is not enough. There just needs to be something different, ya know? A new paradigm that reshapes my dreams without crushing them in that transformation.
I do not know if I will ever find it. Perhaps dreams, just like friendships and romances at various stages in one's life, are meant to be shed like a snake's skin. Maybe Langston Hughes did not go far enough in his poem. What if the explosion is more akin to a transformation that alters the person in such profound ways that s/he looks at the past as not just merely prologue, but as a false step? Or perhaps it is something else, an implosion that makes an agoraphobic out of claustrophobia. Or possibly instead of continuing to defer a dream, no matter how noble it might be, it might be best to dream anew, dreams that take from one's current self in an attempt to say to the world, "Ἰδού, καινὰ πάντα ποιῶ."