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, Collected Poems,1994
The poem “Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes explores the possibilities of what can happen when our dreams are denied. He asks if a deferred dream goes away, or if it remains unhealed and festering until the death of us. He asks if our once life-giving dream turns into something horrifying that haunts us, or if our denied dream becomes sweeter with time. Finally, he asks if our dream, heavy with importance, weighs down on our hearts when denied, or if our dream violently explodes when unanswered. This poem can be used to evaluate the consequences of deferred dreams in diverse contexts and provide us with a multitude of answers rather than a definite answer.
Hughes poem is a response to the denied dreams of African American to secure equality. Unfortunately, his question about deferred dreams still remains relevant today being that black Americans have yet to attain their dream of equality. Hughes’ suggestion that deferred dreams may explode is validated by the outburst of racial riots and violence occurring today, such as Ferguson riots, Charlottesville riots, Trayvon Martin violence, and Manuel Diaz violence. After so many failed attempts to end police brutality and oppressive systems of racism, black Americans feel both outraged and helpless as their dream remains deferred. This outrage and hopelessness mixes to create a violent and explosive response.
While this poem provides as a useful tool for evaluating the deferred dreams of African American both in the present and past, it also can be used to evaluate deferred dreams in other contexts. In the context of Nightwood, Nora’s dream of sharing a loving relationship with Robin is deferred by Robin’s addiction to women, alcohol, and other deviances of the night. Nora gives all of herself to Robin and watches her dream become deferred through Robin’s negligence. In the context of Nora’s situation, her deferred dream will haunt her like the lingering smell of rotten meat in Hughes’ poem. Her dream will remain festering and unhealed until the death of her. This can be the assumed pathway of her deferred dream because of Nora’s persistent questions about Robin and her suffering to the doctor. She even continues to pursue Robin in America when she understands her destructive and cruel behavior. She accepts she will not love anyone like she loves Robin. She will not find a better dream than her deferred dream. Her continued longing for Robin represents a haunting deferred dream that will destroy her.
In the context of the short film “SHIFT”, deferred dreams elicit multiple of Hughes’ suggested outcomes. When the boss first delivered bad news, one Asian man was frustrated and refused a slice of pizza. After the next bad news about the office closing down, the same man seemed much more hopeless and accepted a slice of pizza. In reference to Hughes’ poem, this man’s deferred dream caused his heart to sag down heavy with hopelessness. Another man, before hearing the second wave of bad news, was already expressing suicidal thoughts. This man’s response to his deferred dream of economic stability aligned with the explosive response described in Hughes’ poem. Within a similar context, two men expressed different outcomes from a deferred dream.
Within the contexts of the African American experience, Nightwood, and “SHIFT” people express different aftereffects from deferred dreams. The multitude of diverse outcomes are a result of diverse dreams, social contexts, amount of time denied, and whether dreams are held collectively or individually. These many different responses highlight the possibility for multiple of Hughes’ suggested outcomes to be true rather than just one definite answer. Hughes’ use of a question at both the beginning and the end also suggests the answer is ambiguous. In Nightwood, the ambiguity of deferred dreams is reflected by its open ending. This ambiguity also seems to be a source of suffering as seen by Nora’s suffering from struggling to understand how to handle her deferred dream. “SHIFT” also ends unanswered just like deferred dreams. All of these open-ended works involving deferred dreams show the overall ambiguity and many possible outcomes of deferred dreams in the face of diverse contexts. The only definite answer that can be given is that deferred dreams result in ambiguity.
Frazier, Charles. Nightwoods: A Novel. New York: Random House, 2011. Print.
Hughes, Langston. “Harlem by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46548/harlem.
Link to “SHIFT” by Jonathan Yi https://vimeo.com/25707410