A poetic meditation on violence, revisited

Subtitle: A personal reflection on Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem”


Nearly 3 score and 10 years ago
(seems long ago),
Langston, a moral interlocutor,
embodying the faith, embracing the fear,
speaking for all black folk
to an unhearing, unheeding America,
asked the question,
“What happens to a dream deferred?”

A dream,
the dream,
with teary eyes beholding,
praying to hold with yet hollowed hands,
“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”;
then bold to gambol through opportunity’s ev’ry fertile field
in the vast “sea to shining sea” prosperity-land.

But all this is yet to be.

Thus, Langston’s question remains,
resounds from eternity’s waiting, quivering lips:
“What happens to a dream deferred?”

Does it, the bard inquired,

withering like a once plump grape,
become a shriveled, inedible raisin without reason for being?

or is it like a lesion unhealed,
an infection without end,
a mortal wound the body bears,
e’er a sign of death near?

or is it like rotted meat,
stinking to heaven high and hell deep,
that, when partaken, sickens?

or is it like something sweet to taste,
that, e’er unfulfilling,
lays waste to anticipation just?

“Or does it explode?”

Thus, whene’er I, you, anyone of us
wondering, worrying about protest,
departing from peace,
raging with violent unrest,
asking, demanding, judging, “Why?”
tho’ excuse it, I dare not,
yet explain it, I do:
It’s what happens to a dream deferred.

Now, America,
near the 244th celebration of your birth,
can you,
do you,
will you,
hear and heed?

© 2020 PRA

Endnote: James Mercer Langston Hughes (1901-1967); poet, columnist, dramatist, essayist, novelist; oft referred to as the Poet Laureate of Harlem.

2 thoughts on “A poetic meditation on violence, revisited

  1. Paul,
    I was trying to explain Black Lives Matter and some of our dreams deferred because of decades of hateful or deadly treatment to someone last week and they still didn’t “get it”… You poem helped me maybe with a new strategy to deal with folks who don’t understand. When I see the words from your poem – infection, lesions, withering, mortal wounds, indedible – how do any of these things lead to success and dreams come true? The answer is they don’t …. they continue to wither away until they become invisible and die. That may be other people’s dream for those who look like us, but it’s certainly not our dreams for ourselves. Sometimes violence is necessary when we’re trying to finally stop being invisible.

    Much love!


  2. Loretta, it’s tiring, frustrating business seeking to explain the black American experience to white folk (sometimes to and with people of color) who, for whatever their reasons, conscious and (I believe, largely) unconscious, don’t, can’t “get it.” Nevertheless, as long as I have breath and strength, engaging in these conversations – when and where and with whom possible – I consider a part of what I can do where I am with what I have.

    And, please, read and reflect on Hughes’ great poem, “Harlem.” He was…is a master of metaphor, for he, is spare words (naturally, it would take me many more words to try to unpack his meaning for myself!) speaks, preaches to the heart of what happens when cries of need and desire are ignored.

    As for violence, I believe it begets violence. Hence, as I write in my poem, I dare not excuse it. Still, I do seek to explain it, for I understand it.

    Perhaps at another time I will examine another thought that occurs. That is, there are moments when I believe that I like violence and vengeance. (And I do not believe that I am alone in this.) For there is something innately cathartic about the expenditure of pent-up energy that violence and vengeance release. Still, I do not and I cannot love violence and vengeance, for there is no love at their heart. Only hatred.

    So much to ponder. So much about which to pray.

    Love you


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