“What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”

by James M. Wall014979_38

What happens to a dream deferred? 

The question comes from Langston Hughes’ poem, Harlem, which inspired Lorraine Hansberry to write her drama, A Raisin in the Sunthe first play written by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. 

Her play was made into a 1961 movie which featured Sidney Poitier (above), as Walter Lee, the angry and ambitious son of a mother trying to give her family a safe and secure home.

Hughes’ poem, Harlem, is short and prophetic:

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 was an artistic cry of protest against racial injustice in the United States. He was addressing the increasing frustration and anger felt by African Americans whose dream of equality was continually being deferred.langston-hughes-1

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) (right) was known to possess a “strong sense of racial pride”. It was “through his poetry, novels, plays, essays, and children’s books, [that] he promoted equality, condemned racism and injustice, and celebrated African American culture, humor, and spirituality”.

Like all great art, Hughes’ poem transcends the context of immediacy. “A dream deferred”  applies wherever injustice exists.

Injustices, that is, such as Israel’s oppressive military occupation of the Palestinian people, an occupation that began either in 1948 or 1967, however one wishes to measure the history of stolen land and stolen lives.

Religious institutions have been notoriously slow in responding to that occupation, preferring instead to concentrate narrowly on their own institutional house keeping and growth.

In so doing, these institutions have followed the same plan of deferral practiced by an early generation that tolerated and encouraged racial segregation in U.S. life.

That deferral began to change when Palestinian Christians challenged these churches to denounce and attack Israel’s occupation with the non-violent campaign, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).

BDS began with a call by Palestinian civil society to pursue the same sort of non violent action that earlier worked in the US civil rights movement, and in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. 

Some critics have objected (in good deferral style) to lumping BDS into a single assignment. Never mind about that, individuals, institutions and nations can all boycott and divest. Sanctions are the tactic of nations against nations (e.g. Russia and Iran).

The important thing to remember for those who want a way to fight back, non-violently, against an illegal, brutal occupation, is that each institution and each individual has a weapon of choice.

U.S. institutional church bodies have chosen the divestment route, debating proposals to remove church retirement and other fund investments from U.S. companies that continue to conduct business within illegally occupied Palestinian territories.

And yes, the impact of divestment on major businesses is less against the bottom line of the affected companies, and far, far more against the public image of the company and, in this instance, the state of Israel.

Is Israel worried about its public image? Is the Pope a Catholic? Just look at the desperate way in which Israel and its allies are spending big dollars to fight the BDS campaigns. Even Sheldon Adelson has gotten into the act.

Palestine’s dream of freedom has been deferred far too long. It is time now to “conquer” Israel, not on the battlefield, but in the war that hits Israel where it hurts, in the world of public opinion.

Conquer is the right word.

 In the rarely heard fourth verse of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key wrote, “Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, and this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.'”

Key’s poem, which became our national anthem in 1931, was written after a British flotilla attempted to capture the port of Baltimore, a battle that culminated in the bombardment of Fort McHenry throughout the night of September 13, 1814.

In that context, “conquer we must” referred to “conquer” not as the act of an established nation at war with a neighbor, but as the challenges a new nation faced.

Or, on a more personal note, the word “conquer” to my mother, meant to “rise above” a barrier, in order to overcome it. How many times did she tell me, “you can conquer this”? I lost count at age 14. 

Art, like the poetry of Langston Hughes, can inform us that dreams too long deferred, will wither up like “a raisin in the sun”, or maybe simply “explode”.

Dreams are deferred by barriers, like those legal barriers established by American segregationists or by Israeli occupiers who employ periodic acts of “mowing the grass”, routine night raids into Palestinian homes, and armed checkpoints for a single purpose, to maintain the status quo for those in power.

It is time to fight against that oppression with whatever weapons we  have in hand. Later this month, three U.S. Christian denominations–United Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and  Mennonite–will decide whether or not to seize the BDS weapon to fight against injustice.

When Shakespeare’s English King Henry V rallied his forces to battle against the French, he called on their pride and their dedication to God, king and country.

In Act 4, Scene 3, Henry says:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

It is this same reminder that Christians in three U.S. denominations, and others who will follow, must hear: Fight against injustice or remain asleep in your beds.

Will these Christians fight injustice or will they continue to sip interfaith tea in an act that defers the dreams of Palestinian children in Gaza who have no beds in which to sleep because the Israelis have destroyed them?

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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8 Responses to “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?”

  1. Noushin says:

    Sorry to say that many will continue to drink that insipid tea, Jim. Or as Ilan Pappé called it in Chicago last October, keep maintaining the kissing cousins industry. High time American Christians fish or cut bait; we have made a travesty of The Gospel.

  2. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Thanks for introducing me to poet Langston Hughes’ powerful poem. In a few words, it speaks volumes about the African-American experience and makes you wonder where the Angels were hiding. And thank you for a truly powerful commentary.
    I also appreciate your use of the verb, “conquer”, as “rise above an obstacle”, as your mother taught you, as you mentioned. It is an important word to remember and keep at the back of your mind. It is after all in our National Anthem, as you said.
    The Israelis and their powerful Zionist accomplices and mercenaries will be “conquered”, just like the Nazis were eventually “conquered” by the Allies and their Jewish victims in Central Europe.
    Let the Zionist invaders from Europe realize that the Palestinian people will never give up, even if it takes years, or decades, or hundreds of years. Yes, we are down at present, but history has taught us that tyrants will come hurtling down, no matter how long it takes.
    As the old saying goes, “The conquers will be conquered by the conquered land”. Amen.

  3. oldkahuna says:

    I first heard Langston Hughes’ poem from the man himself. I had the distinct impression that he called for much more than Lorraine Lansberry’s Walter Lee. It was more a mix of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. It meant facing the Bibi’s of the OUR world as well as THE Bibi. Conquer the ‘sweet talk” and virulent lies of the apologists for apartheid. Israel’s survival depends on its being divested of its militaristic and economic monetary support. Judaism’s integrity depends on its separation of its true faith from the exploitation of the Israeli state. Christianity’s honesty depends on its making sure Jewish integrity is not equated with Israeli hypocrisy…and that we do not succumb to “tea and sympathy!”

  4. J. Martin Bailey says:

    This is not only “inspirational” in that it points a clear direction poetically but it sets our current “battles” within the context of our own struggles for freedom. Thanks, Jim.

  5. Roy Hayes says:

    If I remember right, Martin Bailey and his wife, Betty, are members of the United Church of Christ. In a few days the UCC’s national convention will vote on whether to BDS Israel.

  6. Samia Khoury says:

    Thank you Jim for this excellent piece, and Awad Sifri expressed exactly how I felt about it, so I am not repeating, but asserting that eventually Truth and Justice will conquer.

  7. Patricia says:

    I concur with Samia and Awad. I was apart of a parents group in Lincoln, Nebraska.in the 70’s that pushed for Multi- Culture Ed. In public school. I learned a lot about Black Americans such as Langston Hughes. We were looking at the curriculum to be inclusive of all ethnic groups.Teachers were required to attend inservices. The Charleston shootings, I hope will direct Americas focus on education. As Martin Luther King stated in his eulogy for victims of the Birmingham church bomb, “We must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, and the philosophy which produced the murderers.” Israel will shrink when “we the people” fix Americas inhumane system. Churches have failed, I think, as well as education up to now. But that can change if we choose.

  8. Kashif Ansari says:

    Justice and love cannot be deconstructed. We all seek for our voices to be heard even if it is by a passive listener. And we want to have someone who makes our lives complete. What is happening in the heart of the Middle East is very sad. It shows that mankind is his own worst enemy and that cruelty and hatred are still a part of our mindscape despite our so-called progress and science and technology. Where is the milk of human kindness. Even if men do not see their injustice towards others, God is observing it all and he is on the side of the oppressed. The tears and wounds of the downtrodden and dispossessed will not go to waste. A brand new day will shine through the avalanche of time and prove that heart and soul matter more than military might and racist thinking.

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